Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Kenneth Branagh Tells The Winter's Tale

William Shakespeare's  The Winter's Tale is something of a problem play.  It is, in fact, part of a group of four plays actually called the Problem Plays: The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles, and The Tempest.  They also are part of the Romances, the magic plays, the tragic comedies, the last plays in Shakespear's writing career.

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.

The plot of Winter's Tale is complex and more than a bit unbelievable.  King Leontes of Sicilia becomes suddenly convinced and for no apparent reason other than jealous rage and madness that his very pregnant wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best and boyhood friend, Polixenes who is king of Bohemia. The result is terrifying.  In his madness, Leontes (Kenneth Branagh) orders the imprisonment of his wife and the assassination of Polixenes.  Polixines, warned by a noble advisor Camillo, flees back to his own kingdom. Hermione gives birth to a daughter which Leontes believes is not his and orders to be abandoned in a distant land. Because of all this, Leontes only son, Mamillius, dies of grief and upon learning of her daughter's ordered death and the sudden death of her son, the innocent Hermione also dies, grief-stricken.  The Oracle of Apollo sends word that Hermione is innocent and Leontes a jealous tyrant who has wrongly accused his wife and friend and ordered the death of his own innocent daughter. Leontes realizes with horror what he is done. He is berated and held to his grim acts by Hermione's friend and the voice of reason, Paulina (Judi Dench).

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.