Friday, December 4, 2015

The Winter's Tale

Monday night we went to a Fathom event: Branagh Theater presents The Winter's Tale. Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and a host of similarly accomplished actors put on one of Shakespeare's less well known plays. (Heck, I don't even recall Reduced Shakespeare Company mentioning it.) They filmed it and simulcast it around the globe.

As expected, it was wonderful. This is not one of Billy's better plays (more on that below). It had a number of oddities. But the acting talents, staging, costumes, et al. more than made up for it. Even through the technical glitches and bad satellite reception. Branagh reined in his occasionally over the top emoting. Dench was pitch perfect as the bitter old courtier. Everyone was just spot on.

So, the tale. I honestly think this was a bit of an experiment for Shakespeare. It has all the structure and trappings of one of his comedies, but is terribly tragic and not very funny. It's not a tragedy, though, because not nearly enough people die.

Basic plot: King Leontes and King Polixenes are best buds. Until Leontes goes crazy, accuses Polixenes of sleeping with Hermione (Leontes' wife), and tries to have him killed. Polixenes flees, Hermione is thrown in prison. While in prison, Hermione gives birth to their daughter. Leontes orders the daughter abandoned in the wilderness. Leontes' son dies of an illness, Hermione dies of grief, Leontes snaps out of his craze. But it's too late. Also, the guy who leave the girl in the wilderness is eaten by a bear.

Act II, fifteen years later: Polixenes' son Florizel has fallen in love with a shepherd girl, Perdita. Polixenes blows a gasket. Florizel and Perdita flee. Everyone finds out that Perdita is actually the long-lost princess. Oh, and Hermione was secretly alive the whole time. But Paulina, who happens to be the wife of the guy who got eaten by a bear, was just torturing Leontes with guilt over his dead wife. For fifteen years.

I guess all's well that ends well? No, that's a different play.

Branagh was his usual self when playing the tyrannical Leontes, but thankfully a bit less so. (I find that Branagh fails to comprehend that it's okay to use subtler expressions for the camera.) Dench was marvelously acidic as Paulina. But for me, the surprise success was Miranda Raison (probably best known to various of my readers from the shows 24 and MI-5) as Hermione. She was beautiful, and graceful in both cheer and anger.

Shakespeare is apparently a really big believer in the gullibility of people. Florizel goes to a festival with Perdita in which his sole disguise is taking off his fancy jacket. Suddenly, no one recognizes the prince. Polixenes and his right-hand man sneak into the festival to spy on Florizel, and their disguises consist of a scarf and hat. Really? The king puts on a scarf and hat, and his own son doesn't recognize him? That's some Clark Kent level disguise right there. We're not even going to go into Hermione pretending to be a marble statue and pulling it off right up to the point Leontes touches her.

I found the play to be terribly unsatisfying. The emotional beats were all wrong. The introduction of the con artist Autolycus at the beginning of Act II was distracting and pointless. The fact that the grand reveal of the princess' true identity happened entirely off stage was bizarre.

But I have to admit that I enjoyed myself tremendously. I guess that it is true that great acting is able to fix many of the faults of poor writing.

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