The Winter’s Tale has never been my favourite Shakespeare play. I did it for A level and it really stretched my enthusiasm for English lit. I’ve never opened the book again. But when a lovely friend said she had tickets for the new Kenneth Branagh/Judi Dench production at the Garrick Theatre in London, I couldn’t resist. It’s been a billion years since I was left bored and irritated by all the coincidences, resurrections and frank cheesiness of the play and besides, no one is going to turn down a chance to see the wonderful Judi Dench in the flesh, let alone Kenneth Branagh. I’d probably go and see them recite bits of the phone directory, if the phone directory still existed. I’m not sure what the modern equivalent is, maybe the UKIP manifesto? I’m not sure I’d want to hear them declaim that, but you get the idea, I hope.
Anyway, I’m so glad we went. It was brilliant. I think The Winter’s Tale might now be my absolute top Shakespeare. In the right hands, all the clunks disappeared, leaving a fairytale world where the impossible becomes inevitable. Even Leontes’ split-second switch from loving husband to jealous psycho, which really doesn’t make a lot of sense on the page, was made not just plausible but completely believable by clever Kenneth Branagh. I’m not sure how he did it, but he did.
There were a few oddities. The first half (I’m not going to pretend I remember which act is which anymore) was set in beautiful Victorian Christmas scenery, complete with a baubled and beribboned tree and red and green theme, but at one point the happy (pre-bonkers jealousy) family settled down to watch home movies. Really? I’m pretty sure they didn’t come about until about 1930. And the most famous stage direction in the theatre, ‘exit pursued by a bear’, was also taken care of by a bit of black and white film – a very, very early horror film, presumably. The rustic scenes, with Florizel and Perdita, seemed pretty standard Shakespearian peasant from Mummerset, rather than Victorian farm hands which would have fitted better with the rest of the theme. But these are minor peeves.
I loved the Victorian theme (even with its anachronisms) as it seemed cleverly to hint at double standards and pruderies working away beneath the briefly perfect surface of the Royal family life. In the second half, the once-festive court had been transformed into an icy, glittering palace of shards. I couldn’t help thinking of Frozen, but it was very stunning, not least when Dame Judi stood alone on stage after the interval, with snow swirling around her. We couldn’t decide if she looked more like the Harvey Nicks Christmas windows, a gorgeous snowglobe or just a particularly covetable Christmas card.
There were other great performances, too, from Autolycus, a Fagin-like ‘snapper up of unconsidered trifles’ and Herminone, as well as Perdita’s stepfather and brother.
Of course the piece de resistance of The Winter’s Tale, and the bit that seemed the lamest to me at 18, was the final transformation scene. I won’t give it away, as you all should do your best to get tickets and see it for yourself. Suffice to say that, instead of eye-rolling boredom, it was a genuine tingle-down-the-back-of-the-spine moment. Magical stuff.