The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company
Seasons are in vogue, if it isn't Michael Grandage or Jamie Lloyd it is Matthew Warchus putting a post-Spacey stamp on the Old Vic. Seasons are when directors finally get enough clout and have enough star friends to do it their way. If they fail it's back to being a jobbing director for them.
Kenneth Branagh has been here before with his fringe like Renaissance Theatre Company back in 1988. Now a successful Hollywood director, he's back in Olivier's Actor/Manager mode at the Garrick, where he's landed with an odd selection of works. It begins with Shakespeare's dark problem play The Winter's Tale, from which West End producers normally run a mile. However with himself and Dame Judi Dench in the leads, it has of course sold out before it has opened. Thankfully it will be broadcast to cinemas round the world on November 26. Check out www.branaghtheatrelive.com
For the first half of the 6 play season he's paired it with some dusty Rattigans – Harlequinade, a one-act farce last seen in 1948 and a short monologue, All On Her Own, for Zoe Wanamaker.
The Winter's Tale unfolds like an Edwardian Christmas card scene, baubles on the tree and a cozy family fireside in Act 1 and a Winter Wonderland makeover for Act 3 when we return to Sicily. In between we get Bohemia as a summer glade with romping shepherds and their lasses. Christopher Oram's designs, Neal Austin's lighting, Christopher Shutt's sound and Jon Driscoll's video projections are top class throughout.
A trim and confident Branagh looks in his element back on the boards and delivering the Bard with his customary clarity and ease. But it's a hard sell as Leontes (King of Sicily) is such an unsympathetic part. Leontes' unfounded jealousy at his wife, Hermione's, friendship with his childhood friend Polixenes (King of Bohemia) causes him to plot his friend's death, to have his wife imprisoned and her newborn child, which he suspects isn't his, to be left to perish on a remote wasteland. Among the courtiers only his wife's loyal, disbelieving, friend Paulina (Judi Dench), has the courage to challenge him. Dench plays her not typically as a scold but rather as the spirited voice of his conscience and her grounded performance is a useful counterbalance to Branagh's rather old-school take on the brooding King. Her curse "Partake thee to nothing but despair" is perfectly chilling. Miranda Raison too is a dignified Hermione and as beautiful as a Millais painting when, as a statue, she comes alive.
Branagh has also cleverly surrounded himself with vastly experienced Shakespeareans such as Michael Pennington (Antigonus) and John Shrapnel (Camilo) who bring a gravitas to the supporting parts. There are also great musical theatre talent on display, useful for the musical excerpts, including Hadley Fraser (Polixenes), John 'Sunny Afternoon' Dagleish (Autolycus) and a luminous Jessie Buckley (Perdita), a star in the making who has a great chemistry here with Tom Bateman's rugged Florizel. Adam Garcia even turns up but in a non-singing role. The Bohemia scenes, which too often can descend into hey nonny nonny awfulness are enlivened here by some expert musical staging thanks the Branagh's co-director/choreographer, the great Rob Ashford.
Harlequinade is a curious counter balance, a flimsy but amiable backstage farce, rather like Kiss Me Kate without the songs. It follows the troubles of a two-bit provincial touring company taking Shakespeare to the masses and giving Rattigan an opportunity to have a pop at the newly created Arts Council with its ideas that theatre might have a social purpose. The link is that the touring company here is rehearsing both The Winter's Tale and Romeo and Juliet, which is next up for Branagh to direct.
As a farce it is well plotted and expertly directed. The cheap sets, the actors in tights, the dodgy light cues, the desperate bit part players fretting over their one line are all well observed and Tom Bateman comes into his own here as Jack, the harried stage manager, trying to keep the show on the road. Branagh and Miranda Raison too have great fun as Arthur and Enda, the star couple who redefine narcissism and egomania. There are wonderful touches such as Arthur's inability to recall major historical events (the General Strike) and how it impacted on his touring, or his fussing over the placing of a plant pot on the set whilst blithely ignoring his new found daughter: "You mentioned a character called Mum". Their troubles are added to by the walk-out of a company old ham (Shrapnel) and having a Dame of the British Theatre (Zoe Wanamaker) on board, who is too forthcoming with her acting tips.
On tour in the Midlands their world is rocked with the arrival of the sweet and homely Muriel (Jessie Buckley) who claims to be Arthur's daughter and who has a husband, and worse, a small baby, in tow. Naturally news that he's a grandfather is not welcome to Arthur, who has just been adding little jumps to his portrayal of Romeo, so as to appear more youthful. "Why couldn't it have turned up when I was playing King Lear" he gasps. Turns out he and Enda are therefore bigamously married which becomes a job for their London agent to sort out.
After Winter's Tale, Harlequinade is a chance for the cast to let their hair down, which they relish for example in a gloriously silly fight scene, but if seen on its own one wonders if its charms will be sufficient for an audience.
It is prefaced by a short intense monologue, All On Her Own where ZoŽ Wanamaker plays a recently widowed, comfortable Hampstead matron, who sits alone at night guzzling whisky and having an imaginary conversation with her late husband. He was a Yorkshire builder and self-made man, who struggled with her social aspirations. So, perfect Rattigan territory then. Wanamaker slowly builds the tension as we learn more about the circumstances of his death and wonder if it was suicide or an accident. Written for television in 1968, this is its first theatrical outing and it serves to pad out this curious evening.