The Winter's Tale is a problem because it has a collapsed plotline that frequently relies on unmotivated reactions, bizarre plot twists, and a host of some of the more memorable side characters and "clowns" in Shakespeare. For in Shakespeare, be he the keeper of the gates of Macbeth's castle, Lear's jester, or the conman thief Autolycus in Tale, the "fools" or "clowns" tell the truth.
So what follows here is not so much review as it is a simple summary of what makes The Winter's Tale a problem play for production.
Meanwhile, the noble lord given the grim task of disposing of the baby and Paulina's husband, Antigonus arrives in Bohemia to abandon the baby in her supposed father's country. As he leaves the baby in the forest we are given one of, if not the most famous, stage direction in all Shak
espeare: "Exit, pursued by bear." Antigonus, we are later told, has been killed and eaten by the bear. The ship that brought him to Bohemia is destroyed in a storm so no one is left to tell the tale of the baby who is found by a foolish Shepherd and his son, Clown. They name the baby, Perdita.
Time passes. Perdita grows into a great beauty and Shepherd becomes prosperous. Perdita is being secretly wooed by Florizel, the prince of Bohemia and son of Polixenes once BFF of Leontes. Polixenes hears of this, and he and Camillo go to see this maiden his son is so infatuated with. When Florizel fails to ask dad for permission to marry Perdita, Polixenes flies into an unreasonable rage and the young lovers flee, on Camillo's advice, to the land of the repentant King Leontes. We also meet the petty thief, Autolycus. His attempt to con more and more money from the nobles, Shepherd and Clown cause Shepherd and Clown to follow Perdita to Sicilia. They bring all the things they found when she was a baby to prove Polixenes they had nothing to do with the love between Florizel and Perdita.
Polixenes, on the advice of Camillo, follows his son to Sicilia. Leontes, now a repentant and saddened ruler, sits in his lonely kingdom with his sole advisor, Paulina who has prevented him from remarrying without her permission, despite the fact the kingdom has no heir. Eventually in a very plot collapsed scene, it is revealed how Leontes discovers his long lost daughter, is reunited with his friend and Florizel is now okay to marry Perdita because now she is a princess. If all this is not odd enough, we now have the most unbelievable scene, even more unbelievable than a guy being eaten by a bear while his ship is destroyed.
Paulina leads Leontes to see a statue of Hermione she has had made. In reality, Hermione, despite having been seen and buried by her husband, was not dead and pretends to be the statue. She "comes to life" and Leontes, his queen, and his daughter are all reunited and all is forgiven. We are just left with poor dead Mamillius.
Now you know why this is a problem play. It is largely symbolic in nature with Perdita becoming the symbol of forgiveness, renewal and redemption. It is both dark in nature but also frequently humorous. As a Romance, it ends almost happily.
The Branagh production is, for the most part, fun and energetic. It is like most anything Branagh puts his hand to, visually stunning. The acting is solid and Branagh turns in his usual and slightly over-the-top performance. It is Dame Judi Dench who steals the show. While Branagh states at the beginning introduction that he has always sought to make Shakespeare's dialogue remain poetic but sound natural and conversational, it is Dench who actually makes it happen. She is a one of a kind actor. Her presence leaps off the stage and her delivery is so tight and honest that we forget the problem of this Problem Play. I am glad I got to see it, if for no other reason, to see a broadcast of a live show and the incredible Judi Dench on stage.