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12 November 2015

The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company is, in the best sense, mostly about Kenneth Branagh

It takes a lot to balance The Winter's Tale with Rattigan's Harlequinade, but KB manages it.

By Mark Lawson

The programmes for The Winter’s Tale, the show that begins the year-long incumbency of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company at the Garrick, list the actors in alphabetical order, no one takes a solo bow at curtain call and, in interviews, the main man has talked up the power of ensemble. It’s nice democratic rhetoric but brisk ticket sales are driven by the presence of Branagh and the fellow stars (first, Judi Dench) he can attract.

Co-directed by Branagh and Rob Ashford – who previously created a memorable muddy, bloody Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival – this staging of Shakespeare’s lateish comi-tragedy about destructive jealousy and its eventual supernatural redemption also serves as the KBTC’s Christmas show, with the court of King Leontes first seen as a Yuletide family reunion in the early 20th century, with baubled trees, spangly gift boxes and a flickering home movie projected on a sheet.

While that celebration marks a man’s acceptance that his wife is bearing the child of God, Leontes has his mind boggled by the simpler proposition that his faithful wife has been impregnated by him. Branagh delivers the speeches in which Leontes’s psychosis abruptly takes hold with a fierce clarity of both language and psychology. This Leontes is certainly gynophobic, spitting out Shakespeare’s images of vaginal arousal, including “sluiced” and “slippery”, as if he doesn’t want his tongue anywhere near them. He is also possibly in denial about his sexuality, honouring Camillo with a full kiss on the mouth.

These suggestions of the character’s difficulties with women also inform the scenes between Leontes and Dench’s Paulina: his quivering terror of her judgement, which she delivers in tones of sorrowful wisdom, makes unusual sense of a courtier having such power over a king.

If Leontes is frightened of sex, his abandoned daughter, Perdita, is exuberantly up for it in Jessie Buckley’s vibrant portrayal. The usually ghastly Act IV pastoral interlude is here made bearable by presentation as an orgiastic bacchanal and the shrewd decision to allow Dench, in the prologue usually attributed to the character of Time, to deliver another masterclass in verse-speaking.

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Since becoming famous young as Henry V, Branagh has faced media teasing as an Olivier-wannabe, which won’t be stifled by his decision to conclude this season with The Entertainer, in a role written for Olivier. In The Winter’s Tale Branagh’s most obvious nod to him is non-verbal. Olivier, as Oedipus in 1946, became famous for a howl of pain which he created after reading in a magazine of the noise made by ermine in the Arctic when their tongues become stuck to the ice. Whether or not Branagh has been trawling through David Attenborough box sets for sonic models, he gives two extraordinarily haunting noises to his Leontes: a ragged wail on learning of Hermione’s death and a crescendoing series of squeaks at the vision of her resurrection.

Jokier ghosts from the theatre of old hover over Harlequinade, which will alternate in repertory with The Winter’s Tale in the first part of the season. This Terence Rattigan squib – about a theatre troupe putting on Romeo and Juliet in Brackley – was written in 1948 to fatten The Browning Version into a full-length evening. However, its rather clunky jokes about what were not at the time called luvvies proved so tiresome that even the Rattigan estate recently commissioned David Hare to write an alternative Browning companion piece, South Downs.

With perky perversity, Branagh and Ashford have picked up the abandoned half and created a new pairing with the stage premiere of All On Her Own, a 1968 Rattigan monologue for a heavy-drinking widow whose even more drunken late husband died in uncertain circumstances.

Zoë Wanamaker achieves the acting oxymoron of being precisely slurred in that part and also as a more comic dipsomaniac in Harlequinade, where Branagh cheerfully sends up himself and Olivier as Arthur Gosport, an actor-director still playing Romeo while old enough for Prospero.

It would have been a high risk for some theatrical knights to have played a ham actor and Leontes in repertory, but Sir Ken is on good enough form to get away with it. The KBTC really is, in the best sense, mainly about KB.

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This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain