'New Olivier' Makes His Own Legacy
Christian Science Monitor, November
by Linda Joffee
In a warmer, less clipped style
of speech than one normally associates with a classically trained
British actor, Kenneth Branagh says his filming of ``Henry V''
was his opportunity to make Shakespeare easily accessible and
relevant to today's audiences.
It was not, he maintains, part
of an acting contest with Laurence Olivier - the famous actor
to whom the talented Branagh often gets compared - ``because
the man is unbeatable,'' he says. ``The only competition I'm
in is with myself. And that's what I want to address myself to,
rather than the completely futile - utterly futile! - chasing
of glittering prizes or this so-called `mantle' that's hanging
Kenneth Branagh, at age 28, is
considered by many to be the most exciting British actor of his
In 1984, he won unanimous praise
from London critics for his portrayal of the title role in a
Royal Shakespeare Company production of ``Henry V.''
And now, ``the next Olivier''
tag, which he earned then, continues to stick. Branagh's current
film, ``Henry V'' [reviewed in this section Nov. 16] - which
he adapted for screen, directed, and stars in - is an impressive
achievement, as was Olivier's.
His own acting troupe, the Renaissance
Theatre Company, founded only two years ago, already boasts a
string of stage hits, and his autobiography, called ``Beginnings,''
which leaped quickly onto Britain's bestseller list, reveals
a talented writer.
Not that he seeks comparisons
with Olivier. Branagh adamantly insists, ``Olivier has always
been an inspiration for me, but also for millions of other actors,
and always will be. If you are interested in classical theater,
you're bound to be doing the same parts as he did. And, if you
want to work in film and try to do what we at Renaissance have
been doing - to build a bridge between what's considered art
and culture and a truly popular medium like the cinema - then
you are, once again, going to cross the same tracks as Olivier.''
The parallels with Olivier are
striking: Having established his acting company, Branagh has
become, like Olivier, an actor-manager. The aim of both was,
in part, to shake up the British theater establishment's rigid
way of doing things. In addition, both men put ``Henry V'' on
film in the dual capacity of auteur and star. And Branagh, like
Olivier, has the knack of inspiring fellow actors and rallying
them around him.
There, however, the similarities
end. Where Olivier cut a dashing, matinee-idol figure, Branagh
is the archetypal common man; while Olivier was the epitome of
Englishness, Branagh is a Belfast-born, working-class lad who,
after his family moved to England when he was nine, spoke with
an accent so thick he was mercilessly ridiculed. That accent
is now all but gone.
British actor Richard Briers,
who plays Bardolf in ``Henry V,'' says, ``Kenneth has got the
most extraordinary determination I've ever seen in anyone. I
was with people like Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney at the Royal
Academy of Dramatic Arts many years ago. I mean, they were pretty
determined people, as is proven by their careers; but I've never
seen this quality in a young man so pronounced.''
Branagh ``has a `reputation,'
if you know what I mean, within the business,'' says Mr. Briers,
who will visit the United States with the Renaissance in January.
``First of all, he's a brilliant
director, not just a very good actor. And he's willing to pick
up the phone and speak to people.''
As for brazenly doing a ``remake''
of ``Henry V,'' Branagh gives the following reasons: Olivier's
film was made during World War II.
It was intended to be a morale
booster for the British people, and some of passages, such as
the traitors' scene (which Branagh has reinstated), were taken
out at the specific request of Winston Churchill, who believed
that anything depicting troubles or dissension within Henry's
army would be, by implication, deleterious to Britain's war effort.
``Because of all this,'' says
Branagh, ``Olivier took a profoundly different attitude to the
whole thing. Questions about the central character as a portrait
of leadership and the way that war is waged, which I think Shakespeare
puts forward, Olivier didn't need to address at that stage.
``Also, `Henry V' seems to be
a good example of looking into the flesh and blood of people
in positions of great authority.'' With the earlier film, it
wasn't necessary for anyone to worry about whether Henry was
right or wrong, explains Branagh. The point was simply that England
wins. The reflective qualities of ``Henry V,'' he says, have
long been under-explored.
When it came to making his film
version - despite the enthusiastic support of some big names
in British theater, including Paul Scofield and Derek Jacobi
- the project was fraught with difficulty. Someone less tenacious
than Branagh would have given up. The actor was juggling eight
theater performances a week, intense financial negotiations,
and meetings to plan ``Henry V.'' Potential investors all but
laughed when they learned that Branagh, who had never directed
a film, was to be in charge.
But finally the necessary 4.5
million pounds ($7 million) was raised. And ``Henry V'' came
in under budget, one day ahead of its tight seven-week schedule.
(Olivier took six weeks to shoot just the Battle of Agincourt.)
If the response of British critics
is anything to go by, Branagh may well have achieved his aim:
to reinstate the Bard to his rightful place as a truly popular
The ultimate test for the film,
Branagh believes, lies with his parents and people like them,
to whom Shakespeare is wholly unfamiliar. ``I'm interested in
doing work that they might like and wouldn't be intimidated by,''
he says, ``and that they don't feel they need a degree in order
Americans will have a chance
to see Branagh on stage next year, when the Renaissance Theatre
Company makes a world tour with ``King Lear'' and ``Midsummer
The still-tentative schedule
includes the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Jan. 8-March 4,
1990; the Globe in Tokyo, March 21-April 7; Lisbon (theater not
yet decided), April 30-May 6; Budapest, May 8-15; Belgrade, May
15-16; Zagreb, Yugoslavia, May 18-19; and Chicago, May 23-June
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