Kenneth Branagh unveils year-long Garrick season; Judi Dench joins Winter's Tale
Branagh's Plays at the Garrick season will also feature The Painkiller with Rob Brydon and Romeo and Juliet with Lily James and Richard Madden
The season, which marks Branagh's first return to the West End since his acclaimed performance in Michael Grandage's revival of Ivanov in 2008, will also feature Harlequinade, The Painkiller (with Rob Brydon), Romeo and Juliet (starring Richard Madden and Lily James) and The Entertainer (with Branagh as Archie Rice).
Branagh told WhatsOnStage that all the productions featured in the season have been "long-standing passions".
"I felt as though a moment was approaching whereby some of this work could come together," he said. "Finally, Nica Burns, who I worked with many years ago at the Donmar, suggested the Garrick, where we could do both intimate and epic stuff, and it suddenly became possible."
The season opens with The Winter's Tale, which runs from 7 November 2015 (previews from 17 October) to 16 January. Branagh will play Leontes with Dench as Paulina.
"The Winter's Tale has been on my radar since I was 17 when I saw it for the first time and was enchanted," revealed Branagh, who will co-direct the production with his Macbeth collaborator Rob Ashford.
It marks the latest chapter in a 30-year working relationship with Dench, who was part of his Renaissance Theatre Company in the 1980s,
"It's such a privilege to be in the room with someone who has the knowledge of the play that she does [Dench starred in a landmark RSC revival in 1969]... and it's a thrill for me that all our scenes are together," he added.
The Winter's Tale will run in rep with a rare revival of Terence Rattigan's Harlequinade (24 October-13 January), a one-act comedy about a company attempting to stage Romeo and Juliet whilst dealing with their increasingly chaotic personal circumstances.
Branagh described it as a "wonderful" play with pertinent things to say about the "dynamic between the world of culture and the harsh world of economic reality".
Next up, from 17 March to 30 April 2016 (previews from 5 March), is The Painkiller, a revival of the production starring Branagh and Rob Brydon that premiered in Branagh's birth city of Belfast in 2011.
Adapted and directed by Sean Foley - with whom Branagh has previously collaborated on West End productions of The Play What I Wrote and Ducktastic - Francis Veber's French farce centres on two men in adjoining hotel rooms; one a suicidal Welshman (Brydon), the other a professional hitman (Branagh).
The production, which ran to acclaim at Belfast's Lyric Theatre, marks Brydon's second West End acting credit following his appearance in Ayckbourn's A Chorus of Disapproval at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2012.
It's followed by Romeo and Juliet (12 May to 13 August 2016), starring, as previously tipped, Richard Madden and Lily James, who Branagh recently directed on screen in Disney's Cinderella, in the title roles.
Branagh, who directs, said that Madden and James are both "wildly excited" to reunite in the production and have "earned the right to do it", considering they both have classical experience (James in Othello, Madden in the Globe's Romeo and Juliet). He added that he hopes the production will attract "new audiences".
And rounding off the season, which is simply titled Plays at the Garrick, is Rob Ashford's production of The Entertainer (20 August-12 November 2016), starring Branagh as Archie Rice.
John Osborne's 1957 play centres on a fading music hall perfomer who is struggling to adapt to a changing world. The role was originated by Laurence Olivier at the Royal Court, a man with whom Branagh has often been compared.
"Olivier is only an inspiration," he cautioned, "it's impossible to measure yourself against such people. An inherent requirement of the theatre is that it's about now, and not about trying to compete with a great performance of the past."
Branagh's associate designer for the season is Olivier Award-winner Christopher Oram, who also designed his partner Michael Grandage's five-play season at the Noel Coward theatre.
Other members of the creative team will include lighting designer Neil Austin, sound designer Christopher Shutt, casting director Lucy Bevan and composer Patrick Doyle.