Saturday, 28 November 2015

Theatre at the cinema: late Shakespeare, late Dench

Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh as Paulina and Leontes


A live performance was relayed this week from London's Garrick Theatre to cinemas around the world, but you should be able to catch an "Encore" screening at your local multiplex in coming weeks.

It's one of Shakespeare's later plays and certainly not his best. There's no grandstand speech with the eloquence of 'To be or not to be', and the change of time (16 years) means there are two separate casts who only come together at the end. The tragic first half recycles themes from Othello and Lear: Leontes, King of Sicily, imprisons his wife Hermione for supposed adultery (an echo also perhaps of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) and orders her new-born baby to be abandoned in the wild. The second half is comedy, bucolic and bawdy, as Perdita, the king's daughter, rescued and raised by a shepherd in Bohemia, falls in love with a disguised prince, and the lovers head for a reconciliation in Sicily.

Judi Dench is the big draw here as Paulina, a noblewoman who is sometimes ignored and sometimes heard by the king. Dame Judi plays her with haughty grandeur, much as she played Queen Elizabeth (and M!), but neither she nor Kenneth Branagh's magisterial Leontes overshadow the less well-known actors supporting them.

This production, with its evocative but unfussy sets, also falls into two distinct halves. The first acts, played in gloomy Wolf Hall half-light, have a Scandinavian feel, like Strindberg or Ibsen, while the second half is almost reminiscent of Oklahoma! - country-folk singing and dancing - before we move to the moment of 'magic' in the final scene.

Less performed than most of the Bard's output, this is an uneven play, but it's worth the price of admission to see Dame Judi back treading the boards.

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