I went to see Kenneth Branagh’s Winter’s Tale at the Sedona Film Festival over my break. Potentially a lot of hype around this one: Branagh plays the lead (obviously), but also managed to get Judi Dench to tread the boards in a fairly minor role in the opening season of the refurbished Garrick Theatre in the West End.
I’ve thought a lot about The Winter’s Tale, because one of my favorite academic books on Shakespeare, Bridget Escolme‘s Talking to the Audience, discusses Antony Sher’s performance of Leontes by way of introducing the importance of audience interaction during Shakespeare plays. Basically, in lieu of directly addressing the audience to explain why Leontes suddenly gets jealous, Sher discovers the psychological explanation of “morbid jealousy.” Escolme finds his performance disaffecting, since this Leontes needs a doctor to treat his condition rather than forgiveness.
Branagh similarly never addresses the audience, so, according to Michael Billington’s Guardian review at any rate, the reason Branagh supplies for Leontes’ sudden jealousy is that he is “a man still haunted by an idyllic boyhood attachment.” In other words, he’s more jealous of Polixenes than he is of Hermione.
I didn’t get that; Billington cites Leontes’ misogynistic language (“Branagh himself spits out words like ‘sluiced’ and ‘slippery’ as if disgusted by female sexuality”) and his easy way of kissing men (he “eagerly kisses his male courtiers”) as proof of this interpretation. I think maybe Billington has been reading too much Freud? At any rate, after the screening, my mother asked me, “Does everyone in Shakespeare overact?” Ouch. Branagh overdoes everything, dropping to his knees several times (as also noted in Matt Trueman’s Vanity Fair review) during his performance and “hobbles off clutching his midriff and moaning, as if gripped by acute appendicitis.” According to Trueman,”Branagh pulls focus like a barman pulls pints — that is to say, for a living. Everything he does just seems so earnest.” My mom would agree.
Similarly, Dench seems too big for the role. While Trueman felt that Dench “is a born Paulina; the singular husk of her voice serves a constant sharp reprimand to anyone that dares patronize or boss her about” I felt that she overpowers a relatively minor role. Branagh too easily submits to her will in the later acts (why wouldn’t he have listened to her at the beginning then?), and she misses or overplays a potentially wonderful comedic moment. In Shakespeare’s text Paulina says,
Sir, royal sir, forgive a foolish woman:
The love I bore your queen–lo, fool again!–
I’ll speak of her no more, nor of your children;
I’ll not remember you of my own lord,
Who is lost too: take your patience to you,
And I’ll say nothing.
Except that she by saying “nothing” has already reminded him of everything. These lines go by with no notice of the irony, again, said in earnest, a signal of the overdone approach to the entire play. So it goes without saying that Shakespeare’s famous stage direction, “exit pursued by bear” is also done seriously (we get a projected bear image, a piped-in sound effect, and Michael Pennington disappears on a darkened stage).
Which is all fine. I don’t actually mind Branagh-as-diva, and it’s almost worth it to see Judi Dench do anything on stage. I have a crush on Jessie Buckley (I fell in love with her Miranda in the Globe Tempest), and she’s also wonderful here, especially as a singer. All of my friends enjoyed John Dagleish’s performance as Autolycus (mostly, I expect, because he wasn’t turned into a circus clown as most American actors try to do), and the sets (it opens with an extra-textual Christmas montage) are lavish.
Overall, the play is a stilted, somewhat listless production, but all is forgiven in a romance: for me it’s worth seeing actors the caliber of Branagh and Dench attempt Shakespeare in whatever form that takes.