I can take or leave Branagh, but there was no way to avoid him at the Garrick last night. 'The Winter's Tale' is his own theatre company's adaptation of this exquisite and so often-overlooked Shakespeare play.
It's nothing personal. Old Ken may well be a decent bloke. In there, somewhere. It's his over-eggedness, his histrionics and his superiority complex that I can do without. Nor do I care for him gagging, spitting and dribbling all over the stage - what if someone slipped in it? That might be just me.
There are compensations. Dame Judi Dench in absolutely anything is a gift. I confess to a special fondness for this quintessential Shakespeare veteran, who first played Ophelia in Hamlet at the Old Vic fifty eight years ago, and who has since won an Oscar, ten BAFTAS, a record six Laurence Olivier awards, an OBE, a DBE and a Companion of Honour. She is also a thoroughly humble, human and compassionate being. Of this, I have first-hand proof. In April 2006, less than a month after my marriage collapsed and I was in a tremulous state, I drove my eldest daughter to the Haymarket Theatre to see Judi in Noel Coward's 'Hay Fever'. We were late, it was raining, I couldn't find the tiniest corner in which to park. In the end I threw the firstborn out of the car into the bus lane outside the theatre, hurled a ticket at her, and told her I would join her in the interval. I chucked a left, only to see a little yellow Porsche Spyder pulling out of a biscuit-sized space. It was mine, all mine. In I backed, at too sharp an angle, crunching the back near-side bumper of the Roller in front. Distracted, beside myself, not quite all there, I did something I would never otherwise do: I legged it, without leaving even a note.
We returned to the scene of the crime about three hours later, only to find a gorilla sitting on the boot of the Rolls, awaiting us. Turned out he was Dame Judi's driver. The Rolls Royce was her car. I explained the circumstances, and offered to pay. 'You'll be hearing from her lawyers,' he roared. Several written exchanges later, a charming missive from the Dame herself, and a 'compromise' cheque from me, not for the damage (thousands) but two hundred quid for 'polishing', and I was off the hook. I have worshipped the ground she rolls on ever since.
She brings dignity, gravitas and magic to this challenging play - the story of a king who loses his grip when he falls prey to the ultimate destructive force, male sexual jealousy. No longer able to distinguish between reality and delusion, he destroys the things he holds most dear. Shakespeare was approaching the end of his career and his life when he wrote it. The piece is consequently a confounding blend of psycho-trauma and sweet nostalgia, of tragedy and comedy. All's well that ends well, kinda sorta. In order to feel that, one must suspend disbelief. It's something I've found I am rather good at.
Freddie Mercury adored this play. He appeared in it at school, St.Peter's in Panchgani, India. An unusual choice for an all-teenage cast, it must be said, but the experience remained with him all his life. We talked about it. I was reminded of the conversation four years after his death, when Queen's fifteenth studio album, 'Made in Heaven', was released. Largely a Requiem to and a showcase for the diva in Freddie, the album features a haunting track entitled 'A Winter's Tale'. This was Freddie's swansong, which he wrote and composed at his Montreux apartment overlooking the Swiss lake he so loved. The lyrics, describing what he could see from his window, celebrate the peace and contentment that he found there towards the end. The song's title casts him back to the Shakespeare play he performed in as a boy, and appears to be an homage to the old romance. A major character in the play is Polixenes, the King of Bohemia - an ancient kingdom corresponding roughly to today's Czech Republic. If, as scholars believe, this play was an allegory on the demise of Anne Boleyn, its long-lost Princess Perdita character was based on the daughter of Anne and King Henry VIII, who would grow up to become Elizabeth I, England's Queen ...Queen's magnum opus was, is, will always be, 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
See what he did there. Clever Freddie.