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The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick

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I popped into London last week, and ended up at the Garrick Theatre near Charing Cross for a performance of the much-5-starred The Winter’s Tale – with Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench topping the bill.  And it was stunning.  Worth every single star it’s been given.

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The Winter’s Tale is one of the Shakespeare play’s that I’ve not read ever – despite far too many years at university studying English.  In fact, and I’ll tell you this only because I like you, I knew absolutely nothing at all about it before we arrived at the theatre.  Plot?  Nope, nothing.  Comedy?  Tragedy?  No clue.  You know what, though?  Being used to watching plays that I’ve studied and know inside out to the point of being able to join in at the good bits is a totally different experience to watching Shakespeare’s drama unfold and having no idea what’s going to happen next.  We were both in the same boat, my friend and I, and we agreed afterwards that it was brilliant doing it that way.  There were moments that were properly shocking – because neither of us saw them coming – and we were on the edge of our seats (and not just leaning over to see everything) at the end.  And I’ve never experienced that with Shakespeare before.

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I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to Judi Dench’s performance.  She was stunning.  Her character, Paulina, is the voice of reason in the play – a speaking-truth-to-power figure who cuts through crap like a hot knife through butter – and she was perfect bringing that to life.  And when various courtiers where ordered to throw her out or stop her doing her thing, she brushed them off like so many flies (hoorah!).  I won’t give anything away, given what I’ve just said, but her very last line in the play brought a not inconsiderable lump to my throat, too.

Hadley Fraser (Polixenes) and Kenneth Branagh (Leontes) in The Winter's Tale. CREDIT JOHAN PERSSON (1)

I’ve had deeply ambivalent feelings about Kenneth Branagh in the past, but I think The Winter’s Tale has finally converted me.  He looked – oddly – younger and leaner than he has in a while, and even though he did still speak too quickly at times, his performance was intense and powerful and really quite moving.  The whole he-talks-too-fast thing is my perpetual complaint about him (but makes me sound grumpy and old).  I’m guessing it’s an attempt to make Shakespeare’s lines sound ‘natural’ (that’s my theory, anyway), but I’m not sure it works as well as he seems to think it does.  Here, though, I was right with him – and there was a moment of wordless, soundless emotion near the end of the first half that was achingly painful to watch.

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It wasn’t just a two-hander, though – no Shakespeare play ever is (even R&J) – and the rest of the cast were just as good.  Hermione and Perdita were sexy and strong, the shepherds were hilarious to start with – but powerfully moving when the going got tough, Autolycus was genius, and the overriding sense was of an ensemble cast where everyone was working at a seriously high level, even the odd peasant in the back row.  And the staging – gorgeous sets, brilliant use of a projection screen, and so on – made it into something sumptuous as well as literary.

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The theatre company Branagh has put together at the Garrick is so brilliant, though, that I can more or less forgive him anything now (talk as fast as you like, mate).  Bringing together such a high-calibre selection of actors in such a gorgeous and intimately small theatre, and tackling some out-of-the-ordinary plays – utter genius.  I’m now desperate to see all of them.

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And our tickets were ridiculously reasonable.  Yes, we were in the back row of the top circle, but the theatre is small enough that we didn’t feel like we were miles away, watching ants at play.  Yes, there was a tiny bit of the front right-hand corner of the stage we couldn’t see easily, but at that price – £17.50 (gasp!) – we really didn’t care at all.

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If you can get tickets – and I know they’re few and far between – I would definitely recommend this one.  There aren’t many plays (or anything at all) that leave me speechless, but my friend and I were both lost for words as the curtain came down.  And if you can’t get tickets, it’s worth queuing for returns.  I can’t wait to see what else they produce, too.  I’m definitely predicting more trips to the Garrick in my future…

branaghtheatre.com

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