- The Winter’s Taledir. by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh
It was particularly apposite that Kenneth Branagh decided to take up his 13-month theater residency at the Garrick, a playhouse named after one of the great actor-managers of London theater history, David Garrick. This production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Talewas the first in the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season of seven plays, performed in repertory with a double-bill of Terence Rattigan’s All On Her Ownand Harlequinade. The overarching theme running through Branagh’s residency, which closes in November 2016 with John Osborne’s The Entertainer, is a celebration of the art of theater itself. As one of Shakespeare’s most self-consciously “theatrical” plays, The Winter’s Taleseemed like a natural choice with which to open the season. Spanning [End Page 153]sixteen years and two countries, with a comic rustic subplot to counter the melodrama of the court scenes, it has no respect for Aristotle’s three unities of time, place, and action. Stretching credulity with each twist in the plot, it features a landlocked Bohemia with a coastline, a statue that comes to life, an oracle from Apollo, and Shakespeare’s most notorious stage direction—“Exit pursued by a bear” (3.3.57). It is indeed, as Paulina tells Leontes, a play that asks you to “awake your faith” (5.3.95).
Though it was originally listed under the “comedies” in the 1623 First Folio, the generic classification of this late play has long confounded commentators. Its broad themes of reconciliation and rebirth are haunted by the deaths of Mamillius and Antigonus, and the final scene is far from unproblematic. Directors have traditionally taken one of two routes when interpreting this ambiguity in performance. They have either favored a comic emphasis on reconciliation, as in Lucy Bailey’s 2013 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company; or embraced the darker side of the play, with Hermione pointedly rejecting Leontes in the final scene, as in Nicholas Hytner’s 2001 revival for the National Theatre. Branagh’s interpretation was more nuanced than either of these approaches. Although his Hermione embraced Leontes, “hang[ing] about his neck” (5.3.13) as observed by Camillo, she did so with both eyes fixed hungrily on her daughter, Perdita. Moreover, as they left the stage, Leontes was sandwiched between Polixenes and Hermione, holding them both in a tight grip. His complex emotional ties to his boyhood friend had not, this image suggested, been entirely and satisfactorily severed.
The tropes associated with childhood that shadow this play were made clear from the opening. As the lights dropped on the auditorium, the sound of nursery bells rang out and the curtain rose to reveal an adult Perdita singing a plaintive anthem to lost childhood. Mamillius was seated beside a Christmas tree with Paulina, who turned to him as Perdita’s song finished and, using the words attributed to Hermione in 2.1, said: “Come, sir, now / I am for you again. Pray you sit by us, / And tell’s a tale” (2.1.22-24). The young boy then raised an old cinefilm reel and announced, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (2.1.27). As Paulina closed this interpolated opening frame sequence by asking Mamillius to “give’t in mine ear” (2.1.34), the...