Kenneth Branagh has a habit of occupying West End theaters. In 1988, his actor-led company Renaissance Theatre took over the Phoenix for a season, challenging the commercial sector with its lowly fringe aesthetic. He was a modernizer at 27. At 54, he is not. His latest West End incumbency kicks off with a pretty but superficial staging of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and the ratty old Rattigan comedy “Harlequinade,” both old-school and out of touch. Hotly anticipated, Branagh’s Plays at the Garrick season might well turn out to be the most missable thing in London theater.
This time, Branagh’s following in the footsteps of Michael Grandage and Jamie Lloyd, whose West End seasons have proved a new working model for commercial theater. But where those projects hung off an individual director’s style and vision, Branagh’s sits in the actor-manager tradition. It shows. Playing triumphs over purpose.
“The Winter’s Tale,” co-directed with Rob Ashford, is a mulled wine production: fruity, spiced and well-stewed. Designer Christopher Oram dumps us in a Victorian Christmas card, complete with festooned tree and paper hats. Branagh’s king Leontes broods as his queen skates past with Polixenes (Hadley Fraser). By the time we return 20 years later, via a rustic, red-blooded Bohemia, Sicily has become a glittery Winter Wonderland. It’s very pretty, but that’s pretty much it.
The buttoned-up Victoriana and its family values, from which Leontes laments this “bawdy planet,” neatly flags up the play’s sexual politics. Bohemia, by contrast, is a place of dancing and delight, where Jessie Buckley’s breezy Perdita can grow her hair down to her waist. Women are in control here, whipping off their partners’ shirts at will, whereas in Sicily, Miranda Raison’s dignified Hermione can only plead her case and wait her husband’s verdict. Judi Dench, meanwhile, is a born Paulina; the singular husk of her voice serves a constant sharp reprimand to anyone that dares patronize or boss her about.
As Leontes, Branagh unravels like a snagged woolly jumper. Each bit of bad news — Polixenes’ escape, his son’s death — literally knocks him sideways. He drops to his knees with word of his wife’s passing, and hobbles off clutching his midriff and moaning, as if gripped by acute appendicitis. He has a great moment midway through the play when, horrified, he realizes his own tyranny before redoubling his efforts at self-preservation. It all takes its toll: 20 years on, whitened by age, he seems as stiff and frozen as his statuesque wife.
Too often, though, the actor’s vanity becomes visible, and key handovers and reconciliations are played out in slow motion. Branagh pulls focus like a barman pulls pints — that is to say, for a living. Everything he does just seems so earnest.
That makes Rattigan’s “Harlequinade” a curious counterbalance: almost an act of self-mockery — or is it self-defense? In Rattigan’s flimsy backstage comedy, Branagh plays Arthur Gosport, a dim actor-manager at the head of a two-bit touring troupe.
Despite middle-age having set in, Gosport’s still playing Romeo to his wife’s Juliet (Raison), keeping the lights low enough to hide any wrinkles. Rattigan piles on the subplots, as bit-part players storm off and spear-carriers push for promotion, and Tom Bateman’s stage manager just about keeps the show on the road, at least until Gosport’s previously unmentioned daughter (Buckley) shows up with a husband and child in tow.
“Harlequinade” is a kind of proto-“Noises Off,” and the fun is twofold: first, seeing Branagh and company fooling around in such featherweight fare, and second, in lampooning the theater of yesteryear for its naivety and pomp. Those things come together in Branagh’s Gosport, a delicate comic performance of a man without a scrap of self-awareness, who can fuss over a prop pot for ages, even as a jail sentence — for bigamy, no less — seems increasingly possible. Hadley Fraser, John Shrapnel and John Dagleish make the most of their cameos, and Zoe Wanamaker adds a bit of bawd as the flamboyant old actress who’s seen it all before.
Actually, it’s her curtain raiser — a Rattigan monologue, “All On Her Own” — that’s the best of the bunch here. Wanamaker plays a widow, working her way through a bottle of whisky and talking to the space her dead husband would have occupied. As drink sets in, she talks back to herself in his gruff Northern accent, in essence accusing herself of failing their marriage. It’s a sharp, layered look at loneliness, grief and the tensions of marital compromise — ever so poignant and ever so well played. All truth, no vanity.