My final play of the year was also one of the best. The Winter’s Tale has been on my radar for months; it’s the play I’ve most been looking forward to seeing out of the entire “Plays at the Garrick” season. I saw the matinee on New Year’s Eve; it was a wonderful way to round off 2015.
The Winter’s Tale isn’t one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays: it is probably most famous for containing the immortal stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” (the bear in this production is pretty impressive). One of the Bard’s later works, it has a quiet melancholy, an awareness of happiness lost and hard-regained.
Leontes, King of Sicily, is happily married to Hermione; they have a charming young son and another child on the way. However, when Leontes’ childhood friend Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, comes to stay, Leontes becomes inflamed with jealousy, convinced that his wife and friend have been having an affair. His resulting behaviour ends in tragedy, with the supposed death of his wife and son and the loss of his new baby. Sixteen years must pass before the baby Perdita, adopted by a shepherd in Bohemia, returns to the court.
The play opens with the most beautiful Christmas setting, designed by Christopher Oram, an old-fashioned Edwardian treat that is rich and luscious and like something out of A Christmas Carol. All too quickly things turn sour, as Leontes becomes steadily more uncertain of his friend. I’ve been waiting for years to see Branagh do Shakespeare on stage (I love his Hamlet) and I wasn’t disappointed. He is entirely convincing as a man increasingly distrustful of those around him, used to giving orders and having them obeyed, and believable in his grief. Miranda Raison is stately and dignified as his wife Hermione, with Hadley Fraser an excellent Polixenes.
Judi Dench steals every scene she is in, commanding attention as Paulina in a way that completely justifies how well-regarded she is. As the only one prepared to stand up to Leontes she is very funny, quailing him with a look while all his courtiers shrink in fear, yet also revealing her kindness and compassion in her behaviour towards the guilt-stricken king. Dench authoritatively introduces the second half of the play, acting as a kind of all-knowing spirit or guide.
The tone of this second half, set in idyllic, rural Bohemia, is very different, a joyous, earthly paradise of sunshine which contrasts markedly with the earlier snowy scenes. I really enjoyed the performances of Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman as Perdita and Florizel, and John Dagleish gave a strong comic turn as Autolycus. It was the closing scene back in Sicily, however, that struck me most powerfully; I almost had tears in my eyes as Hermione came back to life, to Leontes’ wondering joy.
Co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford, this is a wonderful production of a complex play about jealousy, redemption and forgiveness. A great way to end the year.