The Hyping of Kenneth
The Economist, October 7 1989
CONSPICUOUS achievements of the
young English actor Kenneth Branagh (are there any, one wonders,
that are inconspicuous?) include a BBC television series, "The
Fortunes of War"; highly acclaimed performances of Hamlet
and Henry V; the title role in a new film of "Henry V",
opening this week; and a presumptuously titled and hastily written
biography, "Beginning", * out last week. In 1987, rejecting
early fame at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he founded the Renaissance
Theatre Company, his won unconventional assembly of the foremost
Shakespearean actors; the company has given Judi Dench and Anthony
Hopkins, among others, their first stab at directing.
All in all, the Branagh list
is remarkable, even sickening. He is still not 29.
Now that he is a pin-up, with
glossy magazines elbowing to interview him, it may be time for
a pause. He admits that he has overstretched himself. For two
years he has held down three full-time jobs -- managing, acting
and directing -- simultaneously.
His company is short of money.
It was this that impelled him into writing, for a £50,000
advance, an impetuous torrent of anecdote that conveys brilliantly,
if none too smoothly, the pace and desperation of a young actor's
life. The impression Mr Branagh gives his readers is that good
luck and a good nerve are the foundations of his talent. Playing
Henry V in 1984, Mr Branagh was bold enough to ask Prince Charles
to illuminate the feelings of a prince. His subsequent performance
was a triumph, and Prince Charles is now patron of his company.
If Mr Branagh is to be the next
Olivier, as critics have already suggested, he now needs to concentrate
his energies. This is easier said than done; he is fast becoming
an institution. "Napoleon", for example, an immensely
witty and superficial one-man play that is just transferring
to the West End, boasts that it is "Directed by Kenneth
Branagh" in letters every bit as high as those for the star,
John Sessions. Mr Branagh admits that his role was limited to
toning Mr Sessions down, "playing the thick fourth-former",
in effect, "to John's PhD".
Mr Branagh is well aware of the
dangers of name-merchandising. "It is clear to me in retrospect",
he writes, "that my success has not been accompanied by
any real sense of sustained enjoyment or achievement. I have
never given myself a chance to make any serious assessment of
my work, and I have thus denied myself man chances to improve
as an actor, which now stands as my primary concern.
Can he keep it so? Adrian Noble,
a director at the RSC, once warned Mr Branagh in rehearsal "to
try less hard to be liked". Being liked, however, is what
makes actors tick.
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