Kenneth Branagh is back — and the West End is once again being transformed under his watch, with a season of classical, 20th-century and new plays presented under commercial auspices.
The star actor and director of both films and plays, who made his West End debut straight out of RADA in the original run of Another Country 34 years ago, has been variously linked as a possible leader for theatre institutions from the Old Vic to the National, inheriting the mantle of Laurence Olivier that has somehow clung to him.
But, though he’s variously worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, National and Donmar, he is an independent spirit. Now, 28 years after he led his touring Renaissance Theatre Company to bring a Shakespearean triple bill (Hamlet, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing) to the Phoenix Theatre, he is back to lead his new eponymous company as actor/manager at the Garrick.
He kicks off the season with one of the darker Shakespeare plays, and one that’s hardly ever seen in the commercial sector, The Winter’s Tale, which may have last appeared there in 1951 when Peter Brook directed John Gielgud in it, again at the Phoenix.
But Branagh has given it commercial insurance — not just casting himself as Leontes, the king whose unfounded jealousy at his wife’s friendship with his old friend Polixenes causes him to seek to kill him and imprison his own wife, but also attracting the luxury casting of Judi Dench as Paulina, his wife’s loyal, disbelieving friend.
This is a quietly stunning triumph for both of them: Branagh, initially cutting a still-dashing youthful figure, ages visibly across the evening, as he realises the disastrous path he has taken; while Dench is grave and brave as she provides the voice of his conscience. The production, which Branagh co-directs with Rob Ashford, has an operatic, wintry elegance and eloquence. A beautiful royal palace is effortlessly transformed, in Christopher Oram’s design, into a rustic Bohemia.
There is a tendency to over-indulge the musical underscoring of composer Patrick Doyle, which may indicate that Branagh has spent too long directing films. But it also has a serious theatrical ensemble strength among the acting company, with such superb veteran actors as Michael Pennington, John Shrapnel and Jimmy Yuill joined by some wonderful younger actors, including a few who are hitherto better known for musical theatre like Hadley Fraser, John Dagleish, Adam Garcia and Zoe Rainey but all of whom put their natural musicality to good use in their speaking. There’s also notable work from rising star Jessie Buckley as Perdita, the daughter Leontes abandoned, and Tom Bateman as Florizel, who falls in love with her.