This was the first time I saw The Winter’s Tale in performance. In spite of the Victorian Christmas scene at the beginning and all the dance, singing and merriment among the shepherds, this is a very dark tale for what is supposed to be a festive season. There is simply too much lost to ever be recovered and it is really hard to believe that time would actually cure all the pain Leontes’ unfounded sudden paranoia of jealousy created for his family and friends.
If you have already read the play we possibly know that the question that is always at the back of your mind is how the final scene will be performed. We know that Hermione does not say a word to her husband after she ‘miraculously’ comes back to life, but it all depends on how the director and actors decide to play it. The looks Miranda Rasion gives to Branagh when Hermione first cast her eyes on Leontes make it hard to believe she would even forgive him. However, Branagh, at the end of the day, seems to have opted for forgiveness and a healing embrace encompassing wife, husband and daughter. Perhaps he is trying to give the audiences some hope after a revival of a play that is too often so gloomy that we may leave the theatre in very low-spirits indeed.
Jessie Buckley, who I saw last year as Miranda in The Globe revival of The Tempest, is a charming and sensual Perdita – not to mention a good dancer. It is a shame that Tom Bateman, as Florizel, is so unconvincing. His delivery is exactly the opposite of Branagh’s manifesto of having Shakespeare ‘spoken naturally’, as human beings talking to other human beings. His Frorizel is at times so pompous and mighty that he could well be playing Tamburlaine instead.
To say that Branagh and Dench have outstanding performances is not much of news but I suspect that it will be hard to find someone else in future revivals of the play that can surpass, or even match them. Between the both, however, she is the one who really is the most impressive. Her Paulina, in the words of Michael Billington, is ‘a woman whose capacity for defiance masks a deep compassion for wayward humanity’. Michael Coveney commented that ‘Dench brings all her deeply felt wisdom and humanity to bear on the role.’ Hers is an absolutely dazzling performance and it is no wonder Dench is the ‘poster girl’ for this superb production.