Jelena Sofronijevic reviews

Branagh Theatre Live: The Winter's Tale

First broadcast in November 2015, Branagh Theatre Live’s The Winter’s Tale conquered the UK cinema box office, beating The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. Though no dystopia, Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s production is firmly rooted in traditional Shakespearean landscapes – perhaps an even more distant world.

Branagh’s red-lit Leontes is plagued with insane envy over his wife’s suspected adultery, ultimately jeopardising his own family, friends, and succession. Accused and persecuted by their rash male counterparts, the female characters (and actors) shine within this performance. Miranda Raison’s Hermione exudes assured self-belief, providing powerful, emotional oratory in her own trial. Judi Dench delivers a calculated Paulina, exposing both the character’s strong defiance and humanistic sympathies. Emphasizing that ‘It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t’,this seemingly orthodox production explores and exposes complex gender hierarchies.

Subtle transitions between Christopher Oram’s well-crafted sets transport the audience from Sicilia and Bohemia, and an equally stretching timescale. Indeed, plentiful close-up shots and an equally dramatic soundtrack make this live performance often more cinematic than theatrical. At times, such effects are perhaps unnecessary, particularly in the portrayal of the tale’s beast. Only the live audience laughter, particularly in the second half of the performance, re-establishes the actual Garrick Theatre setting.

Dench’s image may dominate the production’s promotions, but the ensemble should be equally commended. Jessica Buckley as Leontes’ long-lost daughter Perdita embraces the rural Bohemia setting, the radiant queen of a shepherding celebration. John Dagleish’s nimble-fingered Autolycus, John Shraphnel’s conscientious courtier Camillo, and Jimmy Yuill’s oddball shepherd offer equally adept performances.

Branagh’s powerful production and able ensemble deliver a solid rendition of Shakespeare’s classic. Even less ardent fans of the Bard will enjoy this bold, engaging piece.

Branagh Theatre Live: The Winter’s Tale was screened at the Festival Theatre on 30 January 2020.