Kenneth Branagh’s Garrick year as actor-manager opens in unquestionable triumph. One of Shakespeare’s greatest, most redemptive plays is richly served without flaw or gimmick, traditional in this l 1889 theatre but fresh, clear, heartfelt.  The court of the jealous Leontes profits from being set not in antiquity but in a late Victorian – perhaps Tsarist – red-velvet palace in a Christmas season: under the tree a cosy opening vignette of the child Mamillius at old Paulina’s knee, begging “a sad tale’s best for winter”. His mother, prefiguring her statue moment, stands pensive aside, a column of white.
The perennial problem of Leontes’ sudden crazy suspicion of his wife and Polixenes – which can be a barrier to credulity – is softened as the family party begins with grainy old home-movies of the friends as youths, projected on a homely sheet. This, and one unmanly embrace, offer without simplistic emphasis the possibility that the jealousy is of both wife and friend. But as in life, its origin ceases to matter once self-deluding righteousness drives the sleepless half-crazy tyrant onwards, hurling terrible words at a bewildered, dignified Hermione.     His faintly Tsarist air also supports the superstitious reliance on the oracle (Hermione is the emperor of Russia’s daughter in the text, something I had never noticed; Rasputin did, after all, get a grip on that menage). The emotional hit of the first act (co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford) is shattering.
Judi Dench as the indignant, matriarchal Paulina is as you would expect matchless. But the sense of greatness, of timeless truthful wholeness which hangs around her in these great and generous parts, is shared this time by Branagh himself as Leontes. I have been in the past a Branagh-sceptic, but I take it back. This is an honestly great performance, restrained but vibrant with crazy emotion, the actor fully inhabiting a Leontes gripped mid-life by an emotion he cannot even understand, let alone justify. “I am a feather for each wind..” The bewildered dignity of Miranda Raison’s fine Hermione cannot reach him, nor the reasoning of Camillo and Michael Pennington’s sorrowful, appalled Antigonus. Branagh’s scenes with Dench crackle as vividly as the real brazier centre stage as she berates his “needless heavings”, thrusts the newborn Perdita into his arms and, when threatened with the fire herself, flings back “I care not!”. The emotional tornado pauses for its still centre during the solemn trial scene, as a calm, wounded Hermione mourns her newborn infant torn from her to murder, “innocent milk in innocent mouth”. Apollo’s vindication comes; as Mamillius’ death strikes Leontes, Branagh curls like a wounded dog, howling agony, drawing even Paulina to attempt some comfort . As the palace dissolves into a bare seafront old Antigonus sweetly cuddles the baby he must leave on the strand, and a coup de theatre of “pursued by a bear” echoes the home-movie moment we began with (indeed Christopher Oram’s designs serve every nuance and mood of the play with quiet precision).

Dench as Time speaks the sixteen-year gap; amid the fleeces come John Dalgleish’s lanky folksinging chancer Autolycus, the two shepherds (again perfectly judged, unclownish, decent) and the rustic, simple-hearted charm of Jessie Buckley’s Perdita. Polixenes’ irrational rage mirrors Leontes’; then back in the now pale, marble-grieving halls of Sicilia the family resolution is, as always , brilliantly given by Shakespeare to mere third-party witnesses – “Such a deal of wonders!” says Cleomenes happily. This is the late, mature playwright, aware that a classic neat romance-of-revelation moment must not dim the surreal beauty of the resurrection scene. As Dench’s steady voice injuncts: “It is required you do awake your faith”, we do. Heaven knows I have seen this play half a dozen times and read it as many, but I gasped, and tears came. For the lost ones – Antigonus, Mamillius – and for the fragility of new joys and the remission of old sins.

box office 0844 482 9673
rating Five    5 Meece Rating
It is, of course, sold out. But if you can’t arm-wrestle a ticket off somebody…there is a relay in cinemas worldwide on 26th November. It runs in rep with the double bill of HARLEQUINADE and ALL ON HER OWN: review of that follows tomorrow.


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