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Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale (Branagh Theatre Live): Bigger than Life

The filming of a great play performed onstage in front of a live audience can bring a whole new appreciation for the work—the spoken words, the actors’ finesse, the director’s control, the nuances of lighting and set design.  Seen from the seats, all these blend into a single production.  The details enhance the whole, but themselves remain largely unnoticed until brought to the big screen.

This is certainly the case with Branagh Theatre Live’s current release of Shakespeare’s venerable Winter’s Tale.  Watching Kenneth Branagh’s Leontes melt down in a torrent of jealous, murderous rage, his face filling the screen, his tears visible and real, brings that torment into a real-life perspective.  His unjustly accused queen Hermione, bravely defending her honor in a court ready to convict her of adultery, calls to mind the harrowing last words of Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII the eve of her execution.  The tender moments between those whose love defies the law and faces the ultimate threat, the alternating stabs of love and loss and redemption, all loom so much greater.

These tragedies sweep the stage raw in the first half, opening the way to a lighter second half, a where the two kings’ estranged children catch a glimpse of freedom and joy such as can only be felt by those not burdened by the weight of monarchy. There are dances and songs and witty indulgences of comic relief, enough at first to make it seem as though these two halves were inexpertly thrust together by a playwright not in full control.  But, ah, this is the Bard, after all.  There is a point to this.  The joy and freedom cannot last.  Pride and jealousy rear their ugly heads again; the threat of death looms near, the weight of tragedy darkens the stage.

But ah, this is Shakespeare, after all.  By some all but mystical power the dead return to life, the kings and their children all rejoice in their reconciliation.  What might seem mere plot devices in a play have become, through the magic of the motion picture, real and poignant elements of humanity, not so different from those affecting all of us in our ordinary lives.

Given the high production values, it’s no surprise that the acting is superb.  I can’t name them all here, but everyone deserves special notice, with every role given its due respect.  The late-Victorian costumes and splendidly conceived sets bring the era close enough to our own to feel personal.  Cinema camera work allows us to take deeper note of the finer aspects of lighting; faces shimmer in multi-hued glows that would easily be missed from the orchestra.

There are many ways to take your Shakespeare.  A motion picture like this, shot during a single performance, and brought to a big screen near you is one of the best.

Playing Jan. 5 and Jan. 8, 2019 @ Lark Theater, Larkspur CA

Box Office:  Lark Theater

Review by David Hirzel