Kenneth Branagh Takes Shakespeare to Japan for HBO

Pop Matters, 14 August 2007
by Luaine Lee
**Thanks Gina, Jude, Lyn

Irish actor Kenneth Branagh just cannot leave well enough alone. Not only is he an actor of note (heís been dubbed the heir apparent to Laurence Olivier), heís also a director.

And heís not just any director content with scripts of peril or romance. No, he likes to fool with Shakespeare.

When he directed "Hamlet," he set the tragedy in 19th century rococo splendor; his Hamlet, an energetic, militaristic blond. He transformed "Loveís Labourís Lost" into a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical. And now with "As You Like It," he turns to late 19th century Japan and the arrival of avaricious Western traders. The lavish results premiere on HBO Aug. 21.

All this bravado comes from a kid from the blue-collar class whose mother worked in a tobacco factory and whose dad was a carpenter.

"There were tangible moments in my childhood when I knew they were having a tough time," he says. "I was brought up in a council house (affordable housing supplied by the local government.) My parents early in married life ran into a bit of trouble - I donít quite know the details - but I know some money went missing which shouldíve been paying mortgage payments. They lost their house."

When he was 9 the family moved from his native Belfast to Reading, England. That proved to be an unexpected crucible for Branagh. "For a while I was extremely happy and then extremely thrown by a short and not terribly traumatic incident of bullying, but one that I took tremendously personally. I would run away from school and that kind of thing," he says in a quiet hotel room here.

Branagh feels that incident motivated him to be an actor. "I think one becomes more adept and adroit in a kind of social survivalism to do with the assumption of masks," he says.

"Being funny was one mask, but sometimes you just kept your head down. I was good at sports. That was also a way of earning your way. That was also a blending in, becoming invisible so you wouldnít draw the attention of other people who might bully you."

Branagh forsook invisibility when he became a hot, young thespian in TVís "Fortunes of War"; costarred with his wife, Emma Thompson, in "Dead Again"; and directed "Henry V" at 29. Though his marriage collapsed, he managed to keep his cool among the deafening kudos.

"Then it was very, very hard to connect what was being said about me with oneís own personal interior sense of oneself," he says.

"It was connected to where one came from, oneís age and the work one had done. It was obviously very flattering, but I was smart enough to know it was part of what can happen. Whatever the confluence of timing or a particular piece of work ... or the fact that thereís a gap for lauding some kind of new, young individual, Iíd seen others. Derek Jacobi was the new Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins was the new Laurence Olivier, so it was kind of a national sport.

"In one way it was helpful because my determination not to dwell on other peopleís expectations made me very busy and active and prolific in terms of the work I did," he says.

"It was being so busy you couldnít get wrapped up in that because when you did, it was pretty alarming and you knew it had such a short shelf-life as a story and would probably result in a moment when that particular bubble burst. Youíre very much NOT the next Laurence Olivier."

He thinks his background also contributed to his equilibrium. "I also felt the tortured psychology of the northern Irish Protestant Puritan," he says.

"It probably doesnít allow you to have a crazy breakdown; to have the fit - it wonít let you do it," he says.

"That was part of my childhood, whether it was clearing your plate - something Iíve never been able NOT to do. `Clear your plate because somebody in Africa would be glad of that.í There was a sense that you had to somehow always be remembering that.

"It also came from having had a number of opportunities that were extraordinary and a great privilege. So you could talk yourself off the ledge pretty quickly."

Happily married to Lindsay Brunnock, Branagh worries that he has no hobbies except work and reading. He spends time in his garden and dabbles in cooking, but itís clear acting has been his fixation since he was a teen.

"There was a sense - I did plays at 16, 17 - that I was at home," he recalls. "It gave me such pleasure. And I was not in the middle of a culture that said, `This will make me famous. I HAVE to be famous.í It was doing something that gave me pleasure that you would do for free.

"I knew it didnít matter to what level (I rose.) If I could be in plays and be an actor - no matter where I went or how I started or how long it took to establish myself as an actor acting regularly. That was the extent of my ambition. It was a sense of a light going on - a certainty - at 16, 17 there was this gift of certainty. Not about being successful or where you would end up, but about what you were put here to do."


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