So yesterday I went to see The Winters Tale, a Shakespearian play directed by Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh, starring Kenneth Branagh and Judy Dench. The show had full star reviews from several major publications so one would assume it would be a pretty good show.
It was not.
I think because The Winters Tale is in itself a confusing and I believe badly told story that makes absolutely no sense, that meant the actors found it hard to engage with the play and portray their characters properly. I’m not really sure if the acting was bad because of the play, or if they play was bad because of the acting, but something was definitely wrong. I am not sure if Kenneth Branagh has a unique acting style or if he was genuinely forgetting his lines throughout the play, but there were several awkward pauses and sometimes it really felt like the actors were just saying words and didn’t really have any idea what they were saying, which would have made sense as most of the time I had no idea what they were saying either.
I vaguely managed to get the gist of the story, which involved a seemingly normal guy turning into a crazy and jealous monster within the space of a few minutes and then doing a complete 360 before the end of the first act, people dropping dead for no logical reason, being turned into statues and then being revived by Judy Dench, and some rather surprising but very welcome folk dancing. I was confused that the actors were dressed in Victorian attire and had a Christmas tree on set whilst the story was meant to be set in Ancient Rome; the play started with the actors walking through the audience singing a Christmas song, and yet the play was also vaguely set in Ancient Rome with the characters visiting an oracle and believing in multiple Gods. That alone would have been okay if the acting was convincing, but a lot of the soliloquy’s made no sense, partly because sometimes the actors spoke too quietly to be audible (keep in mind we were on the bottom level so were closer to the stage than most of the audience) but mostly because through several quite large chunks of the play there didn’t seem to be a connection between the actors and the text. Sometimes they seemed a lot more like people reading a script than actors portraying a character. They did use different voice levels, sometimes whispering and suddenly screaming, but it wasn’t effective because as there wasn’t a great sense of character and so it was hard to feel the emotion. I didn’t really understand why they were randomly screaming and whispering. It was hard to understand or relate to the random bursts of emotion, especially as they seemed quite sporadic.
Kenneth Branagh did have a few strong moments, but for most of the play I literally thought he kept forgetting his lines. Judy Dench gave a good performance as she is a great actress, but even she couldn’t force the story to make sense. The actress who played Perdita, the abandoned royal baby who miraculously survives a bear attack when the men who left her there are torn to pieces, was actually pretty good; she was lively and the dancing scenes in the second act was one of the significant high points of the play.
The play wasn’t a complete disaster. However, the play itself ended on an exceptionally weak note, which was a fault of the actual play rather than the production although I do feel they could have executed it better. Hermione, the wife who suddenly drops dead just after the gods say she is innocent is somehow brought back to life by Judy Dench’s character and they all presumably live happily ever after. It was quite sudden and not particularly well explained, you don’t even see Branagh’s character meet his long lost daughter. This is probably not the fault of the directors of this play as I imagine it was quite close to the original. What this play has confirmed for me is that Shakespeare really isn’t all that. Whilst some of his plays are very good, i.e Macbeth and Midsummer Nights Dreams, that doesn’t mean every single thing he ever wrote was fantastic. If the play I saw yesterday was anything close to the original written by Shakespeare, it really is not a very good play. It felt like two different stories pushed together with a very hurried happy ending that was not properly explained, and as Shakespeare goes I wouldn’t really recommend it.
And yet somehow this play got a standing ovation. I feel this is because it was Shakespeare, and people assume that Shakespeare is both very good and very hard for us modern people to understand. Therefore, the more difficult one of his plays is to understand the more authentic it must be. However, this is not true. A Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean play can have challenging language, but if the original play flows reasonably well and if the actors deliver good performances you do not need to be a scholar to appreciate and understand it. This story in itself was, to me at least, very badly written, and the fact that the actors performances tended to suggest they didn’t understand the text either left me very underwhelmed and slightly bemused. Shakespeare can be good, but it is definitely not always good. In total, I would give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.