I had tickets to see A Winter’s Tale at the Garrick. I got them pretty sharpish when they were released – obvs Kenneth Branagh a pretty big draw as actor and director. Almost as big a draw as Judi Dench, who is also starring.
I didn’t have any problems getting to the theatre either – got to my seat in plenty of time for curtains up. But this can’t be a review of the show, and it isn’t, for the simple fact that I left at the interval.
Yes, I know, I know. Leaving half way through is a real no-no for someone like me – someone who spends their time encouraging others to go to shows and always reviewing what I see. But it was awful, I couldn’t bear it.
At first I thought, well, that spares me a review to do. But then I thought, no. Hold on a minute. I’m always seeing people leave shows in intervals (or worse, whilst the actors are on the stage) and I thought it’s only fair that I explain why I thought this show was so dire.
Because it is dire. It’s woefully bad.
Not, like, a Spice Girls musical kind of agony (though god, what a huge benefit a burst of Spice Up Your life would’ve brought) but because this production brought nothing to either the text or the audience – a staid, dull piece of theatre that represents everything that I hate about West-End theatre and, more importantly, everything I fear.
Whenever I meet people who don’t go to the theatre, I always ask them, ‘Why not?’ And they always reply, ‘because it’s dull.’ Productions like this do not help me or theatre because, frankly, this is dull theatre. And the more dull theatre we put on, the more dull theatre we fill with star casting and put on at prime locations, the more we pander to that damaging (and misleading) reputation.
This production was crying out for a Nick Hytner, a Rupert Goold, or a Jamie Lloyd to shake it up. Branagh’s reverence for the text is actually this show’s downfall. There is so much in Shakespeare to examine but you have to make it accessible to modern audiences, so that we can all take something away from it, see something in the production that resonates with us, that sheds light and insight into our own existence.
This production had none of that energy. And if text is revered, never challenged or interrogated, we leave it to wither on the vine and dry up. And this production was dying.
I know The Winter’s Tale is not the easiest of Shakespeare’s – everything is rather literal with people saying what they’re thinking, telling others what they’re going to do… But none of the seemingly irrational behaviour, tyrannical outbursts and acts of self-sacrifice were explained or interpreted in a way as to make them empathetic.
It’s as if Branagh quite literally just picked up the text and dropped it straight on to the stage – actors come in, say their lines and leave. Monologues are said centre stage, spotlight gently lighting their faces. Then they leave. The actors really had their entrances and exits and weren’t allowed a moment longer on stage if they weren’t necessary.
So it was bad, yes. But there was also a taste of cynical audience pandering in the air.
The Royal Court of A Winter’s Tale seems to have been transported to a Victorian Christmas. Well, that’s what we got at the start – a warm, genteel Christmas gathering around a beautifully decorated tree – a scene straight from Currier and Ives. Carol singers wind their way through the audience sprinkling snow and Christmas cheer as they pass.
But it’s all abandoned so quickly and it just sent a shiver down my spine, the whole ‘let’s put on A Winter’s Tale over the festive season and convince the audience they’re all watching The Nutcracker’ approach. A real cynical tie-in.
Perhaps if they’d kept to that then maybe I could say, well, a different take on a typical Christmas show. But no, the tree is wheeled off after the first scene never to be seen again. And the Christmas theme evaporates – no stocking at the end of Leontes’s son’s bed, no presents dotted around the stage… Nothing.
Instead the typical Shakespearian Royal Court materialises from the snow and we are back at the worst of my English lessons at school, listening to dry lines being spouted, the audience largely disinterested.
I wish I could say something redeeming about this. I mean, when even Kenneth Branagh’s acting goes off the rails, you know something has gone terribly, terribly wrong. I’ve seen Branagh before – his Ivanov remains one of the finest productions I have ever seen in my life – but his performance in this is so wayward as to be really disconcerting.
It was hard to know which was worse – Branagh’s acting or his directing. So frustrating as he is so much better than this.
Thee we go. One saving grace in the show. Dame Judi!
Shame she wasn’t playing every single part, really. I would’ve stayed for that.
Image Credits: Promotional and Rehearsal Images for The Winter’s Tale © Johan Persson