Saturday was a much awaited day. I had tickets to Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at the Garrick Theatre in London, starring Sir Kenneth Branagh and Dame Judi Dench. I bought the tickets months ago when it was first announced that Kenneth Branagh was putting together a theatre company that would be making its home at The Garrick Theatre, performing six plays, over a twelve month period.
Well, as the day neared I was very excited about the prospect of seeing Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench on the stage together. But first certain practical decisions had to be made. How were we going to get up to London and what were we going to do about eating? These were important matters that needed sorting satisfactorily in order to guarantee a perfect outing.
Often when we go to the theatre we have an early dinner at a favourite Indian Vegetarian restaurant in Theatreland called Sagars. We’ve done this quite a lot this year and I felt like ringing the changes this time. One thing that we love to do is to have afternoon tea. This is what I thought we should add to our outing this time. Half an hour on the sofa, nursing my iPad, and we had a table booked at The Lanesborough for tea for two on Saturday afternoon.
It didn’t take us long to decide that going by train was indeed the most stress-free option. Always looking for the stress-free option. So we had it all planned.
The day finally arrived. Fortunately, I had remembered where I had put my tickets. It was pouring with rain, but we didn’t let this dampen our spirits. The train wasn’t too busy so we got seats and used the journey time to do our afternoon meditation. That’s the great thing about Transcendental Meditation, it can be done anywhere. We Arrived in London refreshed and excited. Initially, I think my husband was a little more excited about the afternoon tea than the Shakespeare.
The Lanesborough, situated on Hyde Park Corner in London, has recently reopened after a refurbishment and is looking lovely. Tea is served in the hotel’s Venetian dining room, Celeste. I was surprised to see that they describe it as their ‘Venetian dining room’ as its walls appeared to be adorned with Wedgwood plaques to me. But what do I know? There were certainly a lot of glass chandeliers, which no doubt hailed from Venice. Anyway, its a lovely room. A pianist tinkles away in the corner and the staff are friendly and helpful as you would expect from a top hotel.
I was delighted to see that the afternoon tea menu offers options for both vegetarians and people who need or prefer a gluten free diet.
The afternoon tea was all that you would expect. The finger sandwiches replenished enthusiastically, the pastries, scones and cakes all delicious.
Copious cups of tea were consumed, which necessitated several trips to the wonderfully appointed cloakrooms. A couple of very happy hours were spent indulging our taste buds, but eventually it was time to make our way over to The Garrick.
There was a huge queue outside The Garrick Theatre of people hopeful of picking up ‘returns’. It was difficult not to feel a little bit smug as we by-passed the queue and made our way into the theatre, our tickets in hand.
As you might expect the play was a triumph. The cast, so strong, the music delightful, the staging perfect. Kenneth Branagh plays Leontes, the Sicilian King and Judi Dench plays Paulina. The transformation of Leontes from a loving husband and caring father to a man consumed by his belief that his wife has committed adultery with his childhood friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, is shocking in its speed and irrationality. The consequences of his actions are heart-rending and his suffering lasts for 16 years before Shakespeare gives us a fairy-tale happy ending.
Branagh is wonderful in the role, whether darting around the stage or howling in the arms of Judi Dench. I wondered how he resisted turning on the audience when a phone began to ring at the most poignent moment. Judi Dench at 80, as Paulina, is amazing, she commands the stage, she commands the King, she won’t be moved . She makes us laugh and she makes us cry. A special mention has to go to Miranda Raison, who plays Hermione with beauty and grace. Quite how she manages to hold the statue pose at the end of the play for so long is indeed miraculous.
You feel so secure in all of the cast. Even the younger, less well known members of the cast were strong in the delivery of their parts. Perdita, played by Jessie Buckley, has a wondeful energy and joy as does Florizel, played by Tom Bateman. I suppose we were all waiting to see how the famous stage direction regarding Antigonus, played on this occasion by Michael Pennington, on the barren Bohemian shore – ‘Exit, pursued by bear,’ would be played out. Well I won’t spoil it for you in case you manage to get tickets. But they dealt with it sucessfully, in my opinion, but using resources that would not have been available to Shakespeare.
It was a wonderful evening. My only surprise being that we didn’t give the cast a standing ovation at the end. I know I could have jumped up myself, but I felt a little shy to do so. It’s times like this that you need some Americans in the audience.
Over the next year, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company will be putting on six plays in total. As well as The Winter’s Tale, we have Romeo and Juliet from the Bard, Harlequinade and All On Her Own from Terrence Rattigan, The Painkiller from Francis Veber and The Entertainer by John Osborne.
On the basis of my experience of Saturday night, I have very high hopes for the other performances. Judi Dench only appears in The Winter’s Tale and Branagh directs some and appears and directs in others. So no opportunity to see these two actors performing again together during this run, but I’m so glad to have had the chance to see them perform together in The Winter’s Tale.
On the way home on the train, a lady told me that she had seen Judi Dench play the part of Hermione many years ago at Stratford. Makes you think doesn’t it?