by Carol Rocamora
Theater history is being made this month, with the founding of the new Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company on London’s West End.
The company’s highly anticipated inaugural season opens with a sparkling double bill: Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and an evening of two one-acts by British playwright Terrence Rattigan. They are now playing in repertoire at the company’s new home, the historic Garrick Theatre on Charing Cross Road, newly renovated for the occasion. Branagh (55), charismatic star of stage and screen, has assembled a stellar company of twenty-three actors for these opening two productions, many of whom he’s worked with for decades, including the notable Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Zoe Wanamaker.
The Winter’s Tale (1611) is a challenging choice for the company’s debut. Classified as one of Shakespeare’s late romances, it is often to referred to as one of his “problem plays,” owing to its dark fairy-tale-like setting, wildly improbable plot, and radical shift in mood from psychological drama to harmonious, happy ending. (“Exit, pursued by a bear,” Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, comes from this fantastical play.)
But Sir Kenneth is not one to eschew challenges. He’s an actor-director who’s admired for going after what he wants and embracing new projects with a positive, energetic, creative spirit, whether it’s performing Shakespeare, starring in a Swedish detective series (Wallander), or founding a theatre company. In the case of The Winter’s Tale, he’s found an ideal role in which to show off his Shakespearean skills. He plays Leontes, King of Sicily, who suffers Othello-sized jealousy over the imagined infidelity of his pregnant wife Hermione with his best friend Polixenes (King of Bohemia). The melodramatic first part ends with devastating news brought by Paulina, a member of court, that Hermione has died in childbirth. Meanwhile, Paulina’s husband Antigonus spirits the newborn away to Bohemia to ensure its safety.
Part II, set sixteen years later, features the young Perdita (Leontes’ daughter) now grown and in love with Polixenes’ son. The play’s tone shifts radically, featuring Bohemian frolics and festivities as the wedding of the lovers draws near. How they reunite with their respective fathers and how all ends well (albeit fantastically) is the delight and surprise of this Shakespearean hybrid.
Branagh and Rob Ashford have co-directed their sumptuous Winter’s Tale on a stately set, whose lush red crimson velvet mirrors the regal interior of the newly renovated Garrick Theatre itself. Memorable performances include Judi Dench as an imperious Paulina and Michael Pennington as an elegant, affecting Antigonus, who steals the show in a tender scene with the baby Perdita on the Bohemian heath.
As if that weren’t delight enough, the company is also performing two one acts by Terrence Rattigan, the toast of London theatre in the 1940s and early 1950s. The first, All On Her Own, is a deeply moving monologue delivered by Zoe Wanamaker as a lonely, guilt-stricken widow in conversation with her late husband. In contrast, Harlequinade (1948), the second offering, is a hilarious, light-hearted, meta-theatrical farce about a repertory theatre company performing Romeo and Juliet in the English provinces. (The Winter’s Tale is also in their repertoire, of course). Again under joint direction, Branagh shines as the actor/manager Arthur Gosford who plays Romeo. “I’m not too old for the part?” he asks his wife (played by the lovely Miranda Raison), who turns out not to be his wife . . . well, not exactly. Therein lies the fun of this farcical romp, along with a myriad of meta-theatre jokes, including wigs that come on and off (Branagh’s is hilarious); actors who quit and return (John Shrapnel is delightful); Juliet’s dotty nurse (Zoe Wanamaker is wickedly funny); and an absolutely ridiculous sword fight.
Ultimately, the star of Branagh’s show is the multi-talented, multi-racial ensemble. “One of the guiding principles was the desire to bring actors across generations together,” wrote Branagh in the program notes, “wherein the young could learn from their more seasons colleagues – and vice versa.” In this sense, Branagh has followed in the footsteps of David Garrick, legendary 18th century actor-manager whose name graces the theatre that his company now occupies. Similarly, Sir Kenneth is compared to Sir Laurence Olivier, who founded the Royal National Theatre in 1963.
Sitting in the renovated Garrick, admiring the original molding graced with golden cherubim, one gets that celestial sense of the great tradition of British theatre, now carried forward by Branagh’s special spirit of generosity and all-inclusion. Productions to follow in the 2015-16 season include Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, Veber’s The Painkiller, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and Osborne’s The Entertainer. Expect more fireworks in this celebratory first season.
Plays at the Garrick Oct 2015 – Aug 2016, Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Rd, London