Friday, 20 November 2015

Judi Dench shines in a disappointing Winter's Tale

Judi Dench – a Shakespearean masterclass
The Winter’s Tale might not be one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, but it holds a very special place in my personal canon.

As an A’ level text, it became as familiar as a lover. And in 1982, our English teacher at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School took our class to Stratford to see the RSC perform it on stage.

The cast included Gemma Jones – who I knew from BBC’s The Duchess of Duke Street – Sheila Hancock and one Patrick Stewart, who was an associate artist with the company, but relatively unknown beyond that sphere.

Thinking back inn the last couple of weeks, I’ve realised just what a seminal piece of theatre it was for me. It was the first time that I had seen a straight play and been left jaw-on-floor shattered, tears streaming down my face.

This was as Paulina led Leontes from the stage at the end of what we know as the first part of the play. My god – it was staggering!

And it was the moment I decided that Patrick Stewart was a personal god. He turned in an absolutely superb performance. Even now, over 30 years later, I can still close my eyes and see parts of that production in my mental movie house.

At various drama school and polytechnic auditions, I’d used one of Paulina’s big speeches as my classical offering.

A few short years later, I was in a very high-quality non-pro production – as Dorcas, one of the shepherdesses. These were the days when I was cast quite regularly as some variation or other of a tart with a heart of gold (or not).

But since then, I have not seen a production.

So when it was announced, last spring, that Kenneth Branagh’s new company would open a year-long residency at The Garrick with just this play, I leapt into ticket-buying mode.

The added bonuses were that I’d never seen Sir Ken live, so would rectify that, while Judi Dench was slated to play Paulina.

Memory is a fascinating thing.

I was astonished at how much huge chunks of the script has such a deep sense of familiarity as it was spoken.

Christopher Oram’s design is very good – simple staging, with an early 20th century look.

But some of the acting was odd to say the least – very shouty. And into that category comes Branagh, in a performance that never caught the melodic beauty of the Bard’s verse, but is broken and staccato.

Was this Leontes done Method style? I don’t know the answer, but it was disappointing.

Not that he was alone: Polixenes (Hadley Fraser) and Florizel (Tom Bateman in an eternally thankless role) were shouty too, adding to the sense that this was a directorial decision.

Which is a shame on many levels.

The pastoral scenes – and getting the correct balance and pace between the bookending scenes in Sicily and the those in Bohemia is not easy – seemed somewhat hysterically played, with Mopsa and Dorcas, for instance, engaged in a really rather OTT cat fight.

Thank the theatrical gods, then, for Dame Judi, who illustrated – once again – just how good she is. Paulina is a gem of a role. Dench didn’t shout: even when she rails at Leontes, her voice never sounds strained.

She conveys sense and great emotional depth, but never, ever without also giving us the poetry – the music – of Shakespeare.

She can flounce with simply an intonation. She can convey power and rage and desperate sadness and irony with the slightest of inflections.

In all the ‘national treasure’ stuff, it’s easy to forget just how good – no: how great – Judi Dench really is.

As others seemed flummoxed, she gave us a masterclass. Frankly, her Paulina was worth the ticket price alone.

There were other compensations: Michael Pennington was excellent in the unfortunately rather small role of Antigonus (‘exit, pursued by a bear’), while John Shrapnel turns in a very good Camilo.

Jimmy Yuill has a couple of moments where he rises above the pastoral shtick to convey real tragedy as the shepherd, while Miranda Raison is a dignified Hermione, if rather lacking in any of the sort of guts that I remember of Jones.

Interestingly, at least one critic has praised Branagh’s fall into jealousy. I found it unconvincing. More than three decades after seeing that Stratford production, I remember Stewart’s descent starting with him joking about Polixines and Hermione. Then his own joke backfires and the seed of real jealousy takes root.

It’s possible that, in the few days between the late preview I saw and the opening night the playing was vastly improved, but I find that difficult to believe.

Rob Ashford is co-director with Branagh and perhaps here lies the heart of the problems: with one director on stage and one off, confusion was always a possibility.

So it’s a sadly unsatisfactory evening – except for a true great who can still light up a theatre.