Branagh Earns the Spotlight
Christian Science Monitor, October
by Linda Joffee
Youthful company scores a
coup. Veteran actors are directing, while Branagh earns spotlight
``Sold out for tonight's performance,''
read the sign, while a long line of people stood eagerly waiting
for last-minute return tickets. Around the corner, another group
of theatergoers were trying to purchase the few remaining seats
for future performances.
The show in question, however,
was not Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest blockbuster, but ``Hamlet,''
modestly presented by a newly created drama troupe, the Renaissance
Theater Company (RTC).
So what's all the fuss?
For starters, the company was
founded by the 27-year-old actor Kenneth Branagh (recently seen
in the TV miniseries ``The Fortunes of War''), and his equally
young acting colleague, David Parfitt, both former members of
the Royal Shakespeare Company. Mr. Branagh, in particular, made
a stunning acting debut a few years ago. Chosen by the RSC as
the youngest actor ever to play the title role in one of its
productions of ``Henry V,'' he prompted many observers to ponder:
the next Olivier?
Such an epithet has been used
many times before, but rarely has it stuck so tenaciously. After
leaving the Royal Shakespeare, Branagh has continued to deliver
attention-catching stage and film work, including writing two
plays, ``Tell Me Honestly'' and ``Public Enemy,'' both of which
received much critical acclaim.
And not unlike Olivier himself,
Branagh is trying his hand at establishing a drama company -
with almost unimagined success. Now in its second season, this
youthful troupe (most of its members are under 30) has pulled
off an especially clever coup by persuading three of Britain's
top stage actors - Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, and Geraldine
McEwan - to make their directing debuts in productions of ``Hamlet,''
``Much Ado About Nothing,'' and ``As You Like It,'' respectively.
The result has been little short
of sensational. Before the three shows arrived in London for
a limited run (in repertoire through October at the West End's
Phoenix Theatre), word had already gotten around: The company's
countrywide tour had been rapturously received, and deservedly
so. Using the simplest of effects - a few potted trees here,
a drape or two there - each production sparkles with invigorating
There has been much critical
talk in recent years among British acting professionals about
``director's theater.'' Stage productions, particularly in renderings
of the Bard, so the claim goes, are inordinately dominated by
the director's interpretive slant. By uniquely employing three
top-rank actors, each to direct one of the productions, the RTC
has succeeded, with a master stroke, in reversing this trend.
Mr. Jacobi, Dame Judi, and Miss McEwan have all spent many years
performing Shakespeare and other classics, both for the Royal
Shakespeare and Britain's National Theatre; they bring to the
newly formed RTC an exceptionally rich backlog of acting experience.
And it shows. McEwan's ``As You
Like It'' is a marvelous display of ensemble playing. The story,
congenially reset in Edwardian times, celebrates in the jolliest
of ways the mental split between stuffy city folk and their earthier
country cousins. The pace is breathtakingly swift, and characterizations
are, for the most part, striking.
In ``Much Ado About Nothing,''
Dench's determined emphasis is on telling a story, making this
tale of young love - in the near-tragic form of Hero and Claudio
and the ever-bickering Beatrice and Benedick - an exciting and
often acutely amusing insight into human psychology.
But it is in Jacobi's ``Hamlet''
that the ensemble makes its most stirring impact. And, as with
the other productions, the singling out of Kenneth Branagh cannot
be avoided, this time in the title role. In ``As You Like It,''
the magnetically watchable actor very nearly steals the show
with a singularly hilarious portrayal of Touchstone in stooped,
sleazy burlesque style. In ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' by contrast,
he cuts a dashing and witty Benedick, while in ``Hamlet,'' all
his stage talents come together with superlative force. Indeed,
his performance has already been dubbed the most memorable of
the doomed prince since Jacobi himself filled the part.
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium