This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
I have seen quite a few live theatrical broadcasts since the tradition began with the inception of NT Live back in 2009 and, although the jury is still out over whether or not they are in essence a ‘good thing’, it must be said that the live broadcast of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a surprisingly powerful stage to screen translation.
It is also perhaps the most appropriate production to be brought onto cinema screens. Tickets to see the play on stage at the Garrick Theatre sold out weeks ago, and the cheapest online sell-ons are going for upwards of £180. The celebrity pull of the production’s two headline stars, Branagh himself and Dame Judi Dench, clearly has something to do with this. For most then, live screenings are the only way to appreciate this, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s inaugural show.
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s trickier plays. Its plot, which centres on the fallout when Leontes, king of Bohemia, allows baseless jealousy to get the better of him and drives his wife to death, is both awkward to stage and awkward to act. One might imagine that a live broadcast of such a play would only exacerbate this, but Branagh’s production, which he co-directs with Rob Ashford, manages to smooth out most of the creases successfully.
Perhaps it is because they are both as accustomed to acting for film as well, but both Branagh and Dench are on fine form, and the power of their performances resonates from the screen just as it does from the stage. Branagh’s full range of emotion is on display. His Leontes transforms from twinkly-eyed host, to furiously jealous husband, to grieving widow convincingly. It is not an easy part to play – the changes of heart are sudden and dramatic – but Branagh carries them off well.
Dench, who actually has remarkably little stage time as Paulina, is nonetheless able to stamp herself all over the production. From her harsh vituperation of Leonties following the death of his wife Hermione, to her wintry introduction to the second act, to the play’s magical climax, she seems the only character able to evaluate the situation with calmness and authority. She is able to simultaneously show great warmth and icy coldness; her criticisms cut incisively to Leontes’ core, but she is only ever cruel to be kind.
Branagh and Dench are joined by a similarly talented, distinguished ensemble, none of whom disappoint. Miranda Raison’s Hermione is timelessly graceful, John Dagleish is enjoyable as the scheming rogue Autolycus, and Michael Pennington’s Antigonus is appropriately careworn, although the scene in which he exits, pursued by a bear, does not perhaps work as well on screen as on stage. In truth, there are strong performances across the board.
Perhaps this is why the live broadcast of The Winter’s Tale works well. Or perhaps it is because production works well on screen is because it already has a particularly cinematic feel – composer Patrick Doyle’s undulating score is an almost constant presence, and designer Christopher Oram’s set is notably detailed and rich, as are the piece’s Dickensian costumes. Or perhaps it is simply because Shakespeare’s themes of jealousy, friendship and forgiveness are so elemental, so universal, that they translate into any medium.