As if one celebrity Shakespeare production wasn't enough for this season, the newly formed Kenneth Branagh Company open their year long residency at the Garrick Theatre with a brand new production of one of Shakespeare's most haunting and beautiful plays. Featuring an all star cast including Dame Judi Dench, Tom Bateman and Kenneth Branagh himself, this is a perfect production to see this winter and is guaranteed to fill you with warmth, despite the unseasonable chill in the air.
The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's finest late romances and doesn't clearly fit into any of the usual genres. The play mixes tragedy with comedy, leading many scholars and critics to label it one of the 'problem plays' due to the mix in tone and style which combines the psychological drama of the first three acts with pastoral comedy of the fourth and a happy ending in the fifth. Because of this mix, directors are able to blend the two opposing worlds of Bohemia and Sicily, and the two courts have a distinct feel and atmosphere. This blend of tone enables audiences to witness an intense drama surrounding jealousy and redemption alongside the humour usually seen in pastoral comedies such as 'As You Like It', with memorable characters such as Autolycus, The Shepherd and his oafish son The Clown. This results in an outstanding play that shows The Bard at his finest and most varied, appealing to audiences across the board.
The play contains one of Shakespeare's most famous stage directions that has developed a life of its own in popular culture and is frequently quoted and misquoted. The direction presages Antigonus' death after he is forced to abandon the baby on the coast of Bohemia. His death is vital to the plot, and presents many challenges to new directors of the piece. It is thought that in Shakespeare's day, a real bear would have been used from one of the bear pits in London. Modern day productions have got around the challenge by creative and innovative ways – from actors in bear suits to puppets and even sheets and sound effects. However it is done, the stage direction remains as one of the most famous in the English language, and we can't wait to see how this production meets the demands.
The drama of the play relies on the childhood relationship between two Kings, Leontes and Polixenes. When Hermione, Leontes' wife succeeds in persuading Polixenes to extend his visit, Leontes begins to examine their relationship and doubts his wife's fidelity – snowballing into a jealous rage. Kenneth Branagh takes on the central role of King Leontes which is one of Shakespeare's most challenging and harrowing roles and has been played on-stage by actors such as John Gielgud, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale. The role requires being able to realistically switch from devoted husband, father and friend into a state of paranoia and ultimately madness that drives his search for redemption, which manifests in the most magical and powerful way. Hadley Fraser will star opposite in the role of Polixenes, bringing his remarkable charm and presence to an equally demanding and memorable role.
One of the main draws of this new production is the casting of Dame Judi Dench in the role of Paulina, making a welcome return to the West End stage. Although Paulina is not the main female role in the play, her command and ability to stand up to Leontes makes it a powerful supporting lead. Dench has previously starred in the play, most famously in Trevor Nunn's 1969 production where she starred as both Hermione and Perdita, creating a wonderful parallel between the two characters and through sheer technical feat even managed to pull off the final act where both characters are seen together. In the Kenneth Branagh production however, Dench will play Paulina, a noblewoman of Sicily and wife of Antigonus. One of the most powerful moments of the play comes as she bursts in on Leontes and shows him his daughter, showing strength, determination and strength of moral character. We already know that with Dench behind the wheel, this will be one of the plays greatest and most moving scenes.
As with all of Shakespeare's plays, the main characters are complemented with a stirring supporting cast who are there to provide comedy and light relief, contrasting with the more serious themes and moments. The division between the two courts in The Winter's Tale allows two very distinct worlds to be created, and Shakespeare uses the pastoral comedy of earlier plays such to integrate the two divided sections. In Autolycus, Shakspeare creates a loveable rouge who holds court throughout Act Four and represents low humour of vagabonds and pickpockets. He entertains the audience with bawdy songs and rhymes, lightening the mood and creating a riotous comedy. John Dagleish is set to bring this colourful figure to life, matched in humour by Jimmy Yuil and Jack Colgrave Hirst as the Shepherd and his son.
No play would be complete without a set of beautiful young lovers – and The Winter's Tale is no exception. After being abandoned as a baby, Leontes and Hermione's daughter blossoms into Perdita, who falls in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes. Despite both of their father's prejudices and issues the two are allowed to marry, and in doing so redeem many of the negative actions throughout the play. The dashingly handsome Tom Bateman stars as Florizel, alongside Jessie Buckley as Perdita, bringing a modern edge to these troubled young lovers.
The Winter's Tale is unlike any other Shakespeare play you have seen before. The final conclusion is both magical and heartbreaking, and is likely to stay with you for a long time. As King Leontes is presented with the statue of his wife Hermione, the audience witnesses a thoroughly magical conclusion that brings together the power of redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness in a hugely moving way. Whilst there have been a wide range of interpretations of the final moments, we're extremely excited to see which direction directors Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh have taken – and if you're interested to find out for yourself there's only one way to know...
The Winter's Tale begins previews on 17 October and opens 12 November 2015. Tickets are on sale now >