Britons Watching New Comet in Theater
The Christian Science Monitor,
December 16, 1985
by Linda Joffee
"It's terrifying,'' Kenneth
Branagh, a 24-year-old British actor, says of his current acclaim.
``As far as I'm concerned, Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson are
names one doesn't mention in the company of mine.''
Many have disagreed. Insiders,
in fact, are predicting a rarefied place for this exceptionally
talented young man. And in a country renowned for its restraint,
such predictions should not be taken lightly. Indeed, after Mr.
Branagh's recent performance in the title role of ``Henry V''
with Britain's most famous drama troupe, the Royal Shakespeare
Company (RSC), one long-established London critic went on record
as saying he had never been so moved by a portrayal of the warring
king -- not even Lawrence Olivier's.
Branagh (pronounced ``branna'')
is clearly no flash in the pan. Despite being in the business
only four years, he has behind him a series of rapid-fire successes
unparalleled by any British actor of his generation. His rise
began upon leaving Britain's top drama school (the Royal Academy
of Dramatic Arts) in 1981, taking with him the coveted Bancroft
Gold Medal; his portrayal of ``Hamlet'' was said to have been
the finest in memory. Shortly thereafter, he landed the lead
in the West End smash hit ``Another Country,'' was promptly proclaimed
British theater's Most Promising Newcomer of 1982, and he went
on to star in a much-lauded drama trilogy for the British Broadcasting
Plummier TV parts followed, but
Branagh was itching to return to the stage. So, at the tender
age of 22, he precociously produced and financed his own one-man
show: a premi`ere dramatic rendering of Tennyson's poem ``Maud.''
Despite what Branagh calls ``the cloud of Victorian gloom'' that
hangs over the poem, he was fired up by the idea of attempting
``to release something which, like Shakespeare, seemed to be
book-bound and dull.'' It would also be, if it could be pulled
off, a great splashy piece for an actor. He adds wryly: ``It's
a tour de force just remembering 1,400 lines of verse -- never
mind anything else.''
There was no money to be made
through the venture, mounted in a small theater on the fringes
of London. It also meant turning down the RSC, which had just
offered him a bit-part contract -- something most actors his
age would have grabbed. Had Branagh accepted, however, he wouldn't
have been able to gamble with ``Maud'' -- and his philosophy
is that an actor cannot be great in a poor part, but he has at
least the potential for greatness in a great part.
``I don't mean that in an arrogant
way,'' he explains. ``But if you're the vessel of something wonderful,
then it expands you. So you've got to do what you can to put
yourself in the way of those opportunities.''
His philosophy paid off. His
one-man show elicited the kind of raves most young actors only
dream about. It also persuaded RSC directors to put forward an
unprecedented offer: the title role in ``Henry V,'' thus giving
him the chance to become the youngest actor in the history of
the company ever to play the part.
Branagh, son of a carpenter and
raised in working-class Belfast until the age of 9 (when his
family moved to England), possesses the kind of commanding presence
on stage that eludes most actors, whatever their age.
``Ken is without question an
enormously talented young man,'' observes RSC director Ron Daniels.
``And he's got it all: amazing instinct, technique, intelligence
. . . as well as being immensely charismatic. . . . Every marvelous
review that's been given to him he absolutely deserves.''
In person the tousled, blond
young man is equally impressive, but in a surprisingly different
way. Courteous, thoughtful, disarmingly unpretentious, he exudes
an acuity and inner strength far beyond his years. When asked
how it feels to be standing on the threshold of uncommon fame,
he searches for an honest answer.
``After playing `Henry,' it's
quite clear that I'm regarded in a different way,'' Branagh says
in a warmer, far less clipped English accent than he uses on
stage. ``I don't feel it when I get up in the morning; but, for
instance, I'm sitting here talking with you. Before `Henry' that
wouldn't have happened. . . . Nevertheless, when people say various
things, that I'm going to be this or that, I simply can't think
in those terms. I'm just me. I know where I live, I know who
my parents are, I know that I have to go out and buy the milk.''
As it happened, the afternoon
on which we met marked a turning point in the young actor's life.
After a 21-month stint, it was his last day with the RSC. How
does he feel on such a momentous occasion, I asked during the
rushed interval between a final matinee and evening performance.
``Pretty bushed,'' Branagh replied,
smiling wanly while slumped in his dressing room chair.
Indeed, during his time with
the company, he's superbly played three other demanding roles.
And, as so often with the packed RSC repertoire system, while
rehearsing by day he performed late into the night, six days
a week. Holidays were few. This underscores a problem for lead
RSC actors which has been muttered about for a long while: the
punishing schedule that makes two seasons' work as draining as
it is rewarding. Though Branagh has loved the experience, he
says it's time for a taste of life outside the confines of Stratford
and the Barbican. The RSC encourages it. ``They like you to go
away, just for variety and freshness,'' he says. ``You come back
then really hungry for a part.''
He has much to keep him busy
in the meantime. While many British actors expect to average
80 percent of their working year unemployed, Branagh can pick
and choose his roles. Already he has lined up the leads in two
major British TV films -- a biography of D. H. Lawrence and Henrik
Ibsen's ``Ghosts'' -- both of which will no doubt eventually
make their way to America.
But Branagh is a man of many
talents. Recently a group of RSC actors ambitiously put together
an informal drama event, tongue-in-cheekly known as Not-the-RSC
Festival. For it he wrote, directed, and scored a bitingly clever
musical about the relationship between actors and directors.
``Tell Me Honestly,'' as the satire is called, was so applauded
by critics and audiences (and directors) alike, in fact, that
it was snapped up by a well-known London playhouse. With so much
going for him, it's not surprising that Branagh doesn't want
to limit himself to the stage, or even to acting. ``I'd like
to do a bit more writing, and certainly more directing, both
on stage and on film . . .'' -- here he breaks into a self-deprecating
grin -- ``just to be totally megalomaniacal.''
But if colleagues' comments are
anything to go by, Branagh isn't megalomaniacal in the slightest.
As one leading RSC actress put it: ``Ken is absolutely boundless.
There's no question about it. We're only seeing the tip of the
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