Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare
Kenneth Branagh's 2015 Winter's Tale:
Proof that if you're a good enough actor,
you can get away with a lot.
I was lucky enough to see a film of Branagh’s 2015 production at the Garrick Theatre in London. I am hugely grateful that there are starting to be world-wide showings of plays I would have an infinitesimal chance of seeing live—please check out for additional listings.

Winter’s Tale is an odd play, to say the least. For me it basically breaks down into two unequal halves: Leontes’ jealous rage, and then, whoops-a-daisy, 16 years later, Pastoral sheep-shearing and tidy resolution (“Exit pursued by bear” in the middle, which I think I’ve seen done well once). I think jealousy must have preyed very heavily on the mind of Let-us-call-him-Shakespeare: not only Othello and Winter’s Tale, but also Cymbeline. In each case there is a wronged, innocent wife, and a husband whose poisoned mind turns in on itself, and I think particularly in Othello and Winter’s Tale there is a clear understanding on the part of the jealous husband that his mind is playing tricks on him, even as he acts on his suspicions, which is remarkable.

Jealousy is not something that particularly resonates with me, luckily (I have many other faults), but what did ring for me this time was Leontes’ grief over the death of his son, especially his lines:

Prithee, no more; cease; thou know'st
He dies to me again when talk'd of…

I suspect it might very well be like that, that one would literally relive the memory each time it comes up.

So what Branagh did extraordinarily well here—and, in the interests of full disclosure, I should probably admit the first time I fell in love it was with his 1989 Henry V—was play a man being slowly poisoned by jealousy. He does it SO well, that one almost doesn’t notice he’s throwing away the details and particularities of the language: there are odd gaps, muttered phrases, rushed passages, which work beautifully, but in the meantime, you’ve lost the lines themselves. The production includes a score, composed by Patrick Doyle (also of Henry V), which does much the same thing: it is both highly effective, and creates a generalized “wash,” like “this scene is sad.”

Where the score really did work was in the sheep-shearing festival of Act IV. I have to admit I dislike the Pastoral part of this play intensely. There is a long (LONG) passage where Perdita talks about flowers, and I think this is important, and each one met something very important to Shakespeare, but since I am a city child and can’t tell the difference between a oxlip and a gillyvor, it goes over my head. This Branagh production was hand’s down the best treatment of the Pastoral scenes I’ve witnessed, because the whole thing had a kind of magical, golden glow. The Guardian theater critic Michael Billington writes that it has the flavor of an “east European fertility rite.” The music worked very effectively here in the dances to rev the energy up in a compressed time. I’ve seen this before, brilliantly, with the scene in Othello where Iago began a drinking song which took Cassio from sober to credibly drunk in less than five minutes. It works somehow to change mood, or shift energy.
John Barton
I have a soft spot for the Winter’s Tale, as difficult as it is—and the language is out-right more difficult than most of Shakespeare’s other plays—because of John Barton and Patrick Stewart. John Barton is an incredible Shakespearean director—one of the co-founders of The Royal Shakespeare Company—with an incredible gift for Shakespeare’s language. In 1982 he filmed a set of workshops, collectively called Playing Shakespeare (available now on DVD through Amazon, hurray!), with RSC actors of his time, and these are all the big names: Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench, David Suchet, and so on, but when they were really, really young. Each episode highlights another facet of Shakespeare’s use of language, but one of the principle lessons that comes out is that too much emotion gets in the way; it’s all about letting the words and images shine. So as an example, they do this quick bit at the end of Winter’s Tale when Pauline calls the statue of Hermione to life with Patrick Stewart as Leontes. They’re all in street clothes—I think Hermione is standing on a box--nothing fancy, but when she stretches out her hand to touch Leontes’, Stewart does this amazing intake of breath: “O, she's warm!” Like he’s been socked in the stomach. It’s extremely quiet and absolutely magical.

This is why Shakespeare is stunning: now and then, he’ll find an image that just sings, that you never forget. This is from King John, where the dying king is brought outside, and he says:

Ay, marry, now my soul hath elbow-room;
It would not out at windows nor at doors.
There is so hot a summer in my bosom,
That all my bowels crumble up to dust:
I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen
Upon a parchment, and against this fire
Do I shrink up.

King John V.7

“I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen upon a parchment….” I think that’s incredible. And I find that at different stages of my life, different lines come alive, like Leontes mourning his son. I’d “heard” the lines before and could imaginatively identify, I suppose, but they just went by for me, and now that I have children, the lines suddenly pop.