Not one but two theatre legends reunite for the West End's latest attempt at creating company theatre: Judi Dench, who made her directorial debut back in 1988 when she directed Kenneth Branagh in a touring production of Much Ado About Nothing and subsequently played Volumnia opposite his Coriolanus at Chichester in 1992, now stars as Paulina opposite Branagh's Leontes in Shakespeare's dark, disturbing The Winter's Tale. Both of those earlier shows were presented under the auspices of Branagh's 1980s Renaissance Theatre Company that he disbanded after he started directing films.
Now The Winter's Tale, co-directed by Branagh himself with Rob Ashford, marks the debut of Branagh's latest theatrical venture the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, as it embarks on a year-long residency at the West End's Garrick Theatre. It ups the game of the West End that has already seen directors like Michael Grandage (who directed Branagh's last West End outing in the title role of Ivanov at Wyndham's, under the auspices of the Donmar Warehouse) and Jamie Lloyd running their own companies.
But this is something different, since it marks the return of that old-fashioned breed, the actor-manager, to the West End (of whom David Garrick, after whom the theatre that Branagh's company is occupying is named, was but one example). And the first thing to say is that although his own celebrity is a helpful marketing tool that means that the entire run is already mostly sold out, this is definitely a company show (he doesn't take a solo bow at the end, either).
The second is that although the production is at once traditional (though in Edwardian costume, not Jacobean, with the royal family seen watching a scratchy home movie at the beginning) and lushly designed, it is hardly safe, either. For one thing, The Winter's Tale — though produced this century already by both the National (with Alex Jennnings, directed by Nick Hytner in 2001, the year before he took over the theatre) and the RSC (with Greg Hicks, seen at London's Roundhouse in 2010) — is famously regarded as one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays. The last time it appeared in the West End may well have been in 1951 when John Gielgud starred in it at the Phoenix, a production that is coincidentally referenced in the current Grandage-directed play Photograph 51.
The play, with echoes of Othello, revolves around a husband's unfounded jealousy for his wife that sets in train a disastrous series of choices. But here it is only his own mind that creates the distrust, not the seed of doubt maliciously planted by another. Branagh brings both irrational fury and guilt-ridden regret to the role that makes me look forward to his King Lear one day. But that could be yet a long way off: he's still surprisingly youthful looking, even dapper, though he ages convincingly across the 16 years that the play is set in.
It is a play also of desolation, and the cold, sober notes of its creation are beautifully sounded by Judi Dench, as ever, the trademark crack of whose voice carries a lifetime's experience in the folly of man. Dench isn't the only veteran amongst a company that also features such splendid players as Michael Pennington, John Shrapnel and Jimmy Yuill, joined by sterling younger actors like Hadley Fraser, Jessie Buckley and Tom Bateman to make this a stunning addition to the West End.
"Branagh gives an extraordinarily searching portrayal of Leontes, the Sicilian king seized with baseless suspicion that his wife and bosom friend are having an affair... A red-letter day for theatre lovers."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Although this production ends, unfashionably, in unequivocal forgiveness, it is not afraid to hint at the darker elements in Shakespeare’s fable. Branagh and Dench are surrounded by a first-rate team."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"At the interval I was a little underwhelmed but the second half opens with Dame Judi giving us silvery Time’s speech about the passage of 16 seasons. Her cadences are hypnotic."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail