This is a fairy tale, a magical story children listen to on long, dark winter evenings, a tale about love, trust and jealousy, about betrayed friendship and repentance and the moral that love, in the end, is supposed to win and that is what makes life bearable.
In this realisation we are part of a Christmas party, musicians come from the audience, singing chorales, and snow is falling on us. An old home video shows two boys playing together,at school, with families, having fun. It’s document to the deep friendship between the king of Sicily and the king of Bohemia.
Leontes of Sicily (Kenneth Branagh) tries to convince Polixenes of Bohemia to stay a little longer but it takes Leontes’ heavily pregnant wife Hermione to make the king extend his stay. It is then that Leontes’ jealousy kicks in – in every kind gesture, every harmless glance or touch he sees his wife betray him with Polixenes. So he hatches a plan to have Polixenes poisoned. Lucky for the king of Bohemia, the appointed killer, Camillo, shies away from the deed and warns the king. Together they leave immediately. Enraged that his plan had been usurped, Leontes throws his wife into the dungeon where she gives birth to a girl. But not even his new daughter, brought to him by Paulina (Judi Dench), softens him. He leaves for Delphi to hear confirmation of his jealousy by the all knowing oracle.
But: the gods are not with him. They tell him that his wife and Polixenes are innocent and he won’t have an heir until his daughter is found.
Returning home, his first born son is dead, as is his wife and his daughter, who had been sent to exile, has vanished.
16 years pass, Leontes is in mourning, seeing the error of his ways but not being able to right the wrong…
In the meantime his daughter, found by a shepherd and called Perdita, has grown into a beautiful young woman and drawn the attention of a brash young man – the son of Polixenes of Bohemia, who is not happy that his heir is in love with a shepherd’s daughter. In order to escape his wrath and stay together, Florizel and Perdita flee with Camillo’s help (you still remember Camillo from the third paragraph? he just wants to go home again) to Sicily where Florizel tries to convince the friendly Leontes that he’s here on a diplomatic mission. That doesn’t work out – but! Polixenes and Camillo arrive at court with the shepherd who unveils he is not the real father of Perdita and it turns out – Perdita is Leontes’ daughter! Together they go to Paulina’s house to bring her the news. There a statue of Hermione is just being finished – and – you guessed it: it’s Hermione herself, living in reclusion, waiting for her husband to forget his jealousy. They are reunited and even the prophesy of Delphi is correct: Florizel is the heir now that Leontes’ daughter is back.
Kudos to set design and costumes by the way: the stage is never crammed but has this airy, light feel to it that lets you concentrate on the beautiful language, executed by great actors. The costumes are an interesting mix of late 19th century but with artistic licence. It’s a period that has extremely gorgeous dresses and suits that make each man look taller and more regal than he is. ;)
It’s a convoluted story with a strong morale and to make it palatable it needs great actors – and this cast is amazing. There is not one weak link in this play, they’re all outstanding. Also: I’d never thought that Branagh himself is such a teamplayer – his often mocked huge ego was nowhere to be seen on stage. He was just absolutely awesome, the scenes with his young son seemed as if taken from another home video, light and easy and loving and real. I knew of course that he was good (I’d seen his DVDs as Hamlet, Iago) but live he’s truly marvellous. A stark contrast to Cumberbatch, even down to the bows where he urged everyone else on stage to enjoy the well deserved standing ovation after this second show of its run. I wish I could see more.
cast: Pierre Atri, Jaygann Ayeh, Tom Bateman, KENNETH BRANAGH, Jessie Buckley, Vera Chok, Jack Colgrave Hirst , John Dagleish, JUDI DENCH, Hadley Fraser, Adam Garcia, Rudi Goodman, Matthew Hawlsley, Taylor James, Pip Jordan, Ansu Kabia, Stuart Neal, Michael Pennington, Zoe Rainey, Miranda Raison, Michael Rouse, John Shrapnel, Kathryn Wilder and Jimmy Yuill