Saturday, 28 November 2015

A Shakespeare play topped the UK's cinema box office receipts on Thursday - Kenneth Branagh's "A Winter's Tale": it was great!

My wife organised the tickets for Thursday's simulcast of the live performance from the Garrick Theatre (in the heart of London's famed West End). We saw it at the Richmond Odeon, but it was available at another 519 cinemas across the UK, and more than 100 abroad. Sales of £1.1m meant that it beat the latest edition of The Hunger Games. Deservedly. I've never been to one of these simulcasts before, but I'd be happy to go again - it was terrific. Branagh's company mainly consists of young, relatively inexperienced actors (the pressure on them must have been immense), and a smattering of enormously experienced ones, including Branagh himself and Judi Dench.

I've not always been a fan of Branagh's work (his television portrayal of the Swedish detective, Wallander, is grotesquely self-indulgent - his interpretation of the big Swede as a selfish, morose little drama queen has nothing whatever to do with Henning Mankell's creation), but he is undoubtedly a great actor. His portrayal of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy (2001), a BBC/HBO television film about the 1942 Wannsee Conference where Nazi officials agreed on the Final Solution, is probably the greatest TV acting performance I've ever seen. His King Leontes last night wasn't in quite the same category, but it was undoubtedly powerful: one would have thought Branagh's physical ordinariness and lack of heft would make it difficult for him to command a stage, but he is mesmerising.

 I've never seen the play performed, and when I read it over 40 years' ago, I found it hard to feel much sympathy for Leontes, who destroys those closest to him by giving in to an utterly unfounded suspicion that his wife, Queen Hermione,  has been unfaithful and is carrying another man's child, and I begrudged him his happy ending, despite his having spent sixteen years trying to atone for his momentary madness. Branagh made him a convincing object of pity and sympathy - even managing to reduce me to tears as he realises the enormity of what he has done. Judi Dench (another small person who commands a stage effortlessly) was excellent as Paulina, the widow of Antigonus, the courtier who (famously) exits to his doom, pursued by a bear.

We were worried at the start when Judi Dench and Leontes' son Mamillius started talking, because their voices were so LOUD and ACTORLY. I suppose that's because, as we were watching a cinema screen, we were expecting realistic speech, rather than theatre bellowing. But it stopped mattering within a minute or two. Some of the smaller parts were marred by sloppy diction (Shakeseare's hard enough to understand as it is), and the heigh-nonny-nonny pastoral frolicking of merry Bohemian peasants in Act 4, featuring a surfeit of really silly dancing, began to pall quite rapidly. But, on the whole, it was splendid - the statue-coming-to-life ending was particularly well done. Even having all the toffs dressed in Edwardian garb worked fine.

The play's being simulcast again between now and Christmas, and I heartily recommend it. However, I suggest the Odeon Richmond shows it in a screening room with less precipitous stairs: my wife and I were below the average age of the audience, and watching sundry octogenarians with sticks precariously struggling  up into the gods was terrifying (although, admittedly, it did make getting out ahead of the crush easier).

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