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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
KENNETH BRANAGH THEATRE COMPANY
at Garrick Theatre

ARTISTIC FREEDOM
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Ansu Kabia, Zoe Wanamaker, Tom Bateman and John Dagleish in Harlequinade/ Ph: Johan Persson

The tectonic plates of the West End theatre are shifting slowly but not imperceptibly as producers cede power, if not full financial responsibility, to artistic directors forming programmes they would happily have presented within the subsidised or fringe sectors 10 years ago.

So, following the Michael Grandage Company operating within the Cameron Mackintosh set-up, and Jamie Lloyd at Trafalgar Studios for the Ambassadors Theatre Group of Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire, we have the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company launching a 12-month season at the Garrick Theatre under the auspices of a third theatre-owning organisation, Nimax, i.e. Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer.

But whereas Grandage and Lloyd are directors – as indeed is Nicholas Hytner, announcing a new building and company, London Theatre, for the South Bank next year alongside his former executive buddy at the National Theatre, Nick Starr – Kenneth Branagh is of course an old-style actor-manager who leads his own company into battle, and this is what lends his operation such a special energy and flavour.

Branagh, who will appear in three of the six announced productions, starts by playing the first two – The Winter’s Tale and Terence Rattigan’s backstage 1948 farce Harlequinade (preceded by a 15-minute monologue, All on Her Own) – in repertoire, though critics saw both offerings on the one press day in early November. Just as well, probably, as Harlequinade, though delightful in its own way, is a fairly thin piece and has been rendered virtually redundant by Michael Frayn’s all-conquering “theatrical” farce Noises Off.

Rattigan’s recurring line is one he spoke, by all accounts, not least his own, ineffectively, when he played Peter in a John Gielgud Oxford University production of Romeo and Juliet in 1932: “Faith, we may put up our pipes and be gone.” The ropey ensemble, led by Branagh’s hilariously over-age “juve” in boots, blouson and meticulous face-hair, are putting on Romeo and Juliet hampered by internecine squabbles, failing scenery and a tipsy Nurse, played with unblinking, unfazed grandeur by Zoë Wanamaker.

Wanamaker’s hit the bottle, too, in the curtain-raiser, All on Her Own, as she rakes over, with increasing desperation, the pros and cons of the probability that her late husband committed suicide. It’s a deft and clever piece of writing, initially a TV spot for Margaret Leighton in 1968, with Rattigan’s signature sexual anxiety muffled in polite discourse. But it’s not really in the Alan Bennett “Talking Heads” class, and you also wonder why Harlequinade isn’t paired with something a bit more substantial, as it was, originally, with the same author’s The Browning Version.

Judi Dench isn’t in the Rattigan, but she is a perfect Paulina in The Winter’s Tale, a play she graced for Trevor Nunn at the Royal Shakespeare Company as both Hermione and her lost child Perdita, roles taken here, with some aplomb, and measured grace, by Miranda Raison and Jessie Buckley. Branagh’s production (co-directed by Rob Ashford) is simple, beautiful and very moving – the designer is Grandage’s regular collaborator and, indeed, partner, Christopher Oram – starting in a Victorian Christmas idyll (snowflakes and skating, presents by the tree) ripped apart by Leontes’ unfounded jealousy over his wife Hermione’s hospitality towards the visiting king of Bohemia, and his best friend, Polixenes (Hadley Fraser, whose wife, Rosalie Craig, is the new Rosalind in As You Like It at the National).

Dench also magically claims the chorus at the start of act four, which spans 16 years and takes us to Bohemia, as a speech naturally belonging to Paulina. This is a piercingly intelligent idea of Branagh’s, and his casting is inspired: not only Dench, but Michael Pennington as poor old Antigonus, leaving the baby on the beach before exiting “pursued by a bear” (a great big tooth-bearing grizzly on a shuddering silk cloth), RSC veteran John Shrapnel as a fine Camillo and John Dagleish (fresh from playing Ray Davies of the Kinks in the hit musical Sunny Afternoon) as Autolycus, that ingratiating busker and “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.” This really does bode well for the coming months in the West End.

 


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