Review: The Winter's Tale

Dench brings warmth to Branagh's cold Winter


The launch of Kenneth Branagh's year-long season of West End plays begins with such Christmas cosiness I half expected Branagh's Leontes - the kindly king who turns into a jealous, child-killing tyrant - to pitch up wearing a red costume and singing ho, ho ho.

Why not? This is the West End and if Shakespeare is to be performed here, it has to be done commercially. Although, with Judi Dench in the cast, the financial risk is virtually nil.

Dench is by far the most compelling reason to see this production. She plays Paulina, the noblewoman who has the gumption to stand up to Branagh's unhinged tyrant. Sometimes it is all too automatic to praise one who is this loved but, in this case, the stage really does seem to dim when Dench exits, and with her goes the poise with which her Paulina delivers withering judgment on Branagh's king.

Branagh is solid, if at times oddly stilted. More problematic is that he and fellow co-director Rob Ashford rely too heavily on wintry blue haze and summery golden light to separate the play's two locations. For, while Christopher Oram's design of receding proscenium arches works well for one, it's awfully lacking for the other - a bucolic idyll that, on this stage, needs more than a few plaited twigs to fully evoke it.

The play's climax in which king and queen are reunited - always as moving as it is ridiculous - works beautifully, however, in a frost-bitten scene that generates such emotional warmth you could roast your chestnuts on it.

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