Go on think about it. I'll wait.
Ok? Good. If you came up with anything more than 'exit, pursued by a bear' then you're either lying or much, much cleverer than me. Either is possible, frankly.
Anyhoo, the point I'm labouring here is that The Winter's Tale was not a play I knew at all before seeing the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company production of it.
Approaching even with the most open of minds there is no question that this is not a great play. I believe the adjective most frequently attached to it is 'problematic' which seems a fair assessment to me. It's a play of two halves really and, to be fair, the first half (the tragedy bit, as jealousy crazed King Leontes causes his family to die in various ways) has a lot going for it - it's basically Diet Othello and that's kind of cool with me. The 'redemptive' second half, and in particular, the big (SPOILERY) reveal that dead Queen Hermione is actually sort of alive in statue form, I have less time for. My suspension of disbelief is just not willing enough to buy it.
But whilst the play might not be great this production certainly is.
First of all, let's just agree that seeing Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench doing Shakespeare, any Shakespeare, is simply an utter joy. To see them doing it together is blissful. They are both on superb form here. Dench is a definitive Paulina; sassy, wise, stealing scenes and delivering whatever Mr S would have called mic drops left, right and centre. And no one but no one speaks Shakespeare as well as KenBran. Even if Leontes is a complete shit for most of this play, Branagh makes him a compelling, human and believable shit who you absolutely want to see more of. It's a real honour to see these two acting together in the flesh (you have to wonder if it will ever happen again).
The company they're surrounded by is (almost) equally excellent. Whilst there's no weak link to speak of, John Shrapnel's authoritative Camillo, Hadley Fraser's wronged-but-actually-a-bit-of-a-bastard Polixenes and Michael Pennington's (what a legend) tragic Antigonus are personal highlights. Also Tom Bateman (Florizel) and his lovely chest, but that's by the by.
This production looks so beautiful too. Christopher Oram is on typically perfect form with his beautiful designs (though I was disappointed with the 'pursued by a bear' sequence - perhaps I've been spoiled by The Hairy Ape but I wanted a proper bear not a cop out projection!) and setting the action unapologetically at Christmas gives him a lot to work with. His costumes are equally beautiful, something only enhanced for me by the fact that Leontes' wardrobe is vaguely reminiscent of Harry Potter's Gilderoy Lockhart (seriously, Google this and check out the similarities). Rob Ashford's choreography is joyfully exuberant in all the right places, especially the pastoral scene.
All of this gives the action an unashamedly cinematic feel which totally works and is enhanced by approximately 100% by (long time Branagh collaborator) Patrick Doyle's beautiful yet unobtrusive music. Were there to be a soundtrack album, I would buy it.
Overall then this is a total winner and a fantastic start to the KBTC's Plays at the Garrick residency. I would urge you to see it, but it's sold out and the live broadcast has been and gone. Watch out for encore screenings as a matter of urgency.
The Winter's Tale is playing (in rep) at the Garrick until 16th January.