Stop Bashing Branagh
Evening Standard (London), May
by Michael Owen
Critics of the wunderkind
actor and director would love to see him fall flat on his famous
face. But now there is a swelling chorus of voices hitting back
at the knockers and urging them to leave our Ken alone
IN ROLLED-UP shirt sleeves, jeans
and loafers, Kenneth Branagh strolled through the spring sunshine
splashed around Chichester Festival Theatre's forecourt, swapping
jokes with fellow actors on how the previous night's show had
gone and registering a cheery 'Hello, mate,' before sitting down
to concentrate on the latest epic endeavour to be embraced by
this hustling, one-man, cross-media industry.
The news is that after directing
and starring in his Hollywood movie, Dead Again, and co-directing
Uncle Vanya with Richard Briers in the title role, he has put
himself back centre-stage for the first time in two years to
play one of Shakespeare's most testing titans - Coriolanus.
Being Branagh, it will be a high-profile
affair despite its out-of-town address. The Renaissance Theatre
Company he runs with long-time colleague David Parfitt has captured
the opening slot of Chichester's summer season where the first
night crowd will gather on Wednesday, Prince Charles (Renaissance's
patron) attends a gala on Saturday and the box office will be
under siege until he ends his run in late June.
He has gathered some old friends
around him, like Dame Judi Dench to play Volumnia and Briers
as Menenius but, typically of this apparently nerveless, high-rolling
gambler, has entrusted the enterprise to a virtually unknown
director called Tim Supple.
He explains that choice away
quite simply by saying: 'He's a very talented lad and it's our
company's policy to encourage people to do the unexpected.'
Branagh's schedule this year
looks a killer to lesser mortals. He has just directed a small-scale
British film, Peter's Friends, follows Coriolanus with a film
version of Much Ado About Nothing to be made in Italy, which
he will direct and star in with his wife, Emma Thompson, then
returns to the RSC to play a full-length, four-hour-plus version
of Hamlet, staged by Adrian Noble, which opens at the Barbican
and transfers to Stratford.
Despite this pressurised activity,
he stays breezily relaxed, swears he is enjoying himself and
remains outwardly unconcerned by the certain knowledge that sections
of both his and my professions can't wait for him to come a cropper.
I asked him about the anti-Ken
snipings. He shrugged. 'It's not a real problem. I suppose it's
par for the course. What should I expect? That people should
like me? It's all about art and people have subjective reactions.
When Irving had the Lyceum running at the height of its success
people were going round pamphleting against his style of acting.'
Then, seeing the hole he had
dug for himself, quickly added: 'Not that I put myself in that
league, of course.'
The truth is that Branagh remains
eminently likeable, the matiness is not a posture and, like no
one else around, he makes things happen. There has even been
a backwash to the anti-Branagh movement on the theme of: 'For
God's sake, let's leave Ken alone or we'll lose him.'
After Dead Again hit box-office
gold in America, he certainly had enough offers to make his home
- and an incalculable fortune - in Los Angeles for the foreseeable
future and he admits the lure was real.
'The money was very tempting.
I could have done a lot with that sort of cash but I've never
done things for the sake of money. I simply didn't want to stay.
My home is here. I'd miss my friends. The idea of being a Hollywood
animal is not for me. I like being here. It's where I live.
'I came back wanting to work
with Renaissance and wanting to do Coriolanus.'
He does give every sign of relishing
his current role as a working actor. 'It's exactly what I wanted
- a show where I was just an actor, where I wasn't carrying the
creative burden and I had a director to tell me what to do. It's
a chance to do what I do most naturally and, hopefully, best.
'I've had a renewal of the company
experience as an actor. It's nice to be able to lark around and
have a few jokes in the green room without worrying about the
fact I'm wearing two hats.'
This young man, now 31, who dares
to challenge the gods, did have one, perhaps significant second
thought before he committed himself to a Shakespearean stage
return. The other role he considered and rejected was Richard
Recalling the Olivier comparisons
that followed his Henry V film, he grinned: 'The idea of doing
Richard III did seem like putting my head fully on the block
to be severed in a brutal fashion.'
Director Supple, who first met
Branagh when he staged a John Sessions one-man show, offered
another insight. 'He did think about Richard but went shy on
it. He was not convinced about Coriolanus at first. He was not
anti, but he took some wooing. I think he was wary of playing
a part which was so unsympathetic, so abhorrent.'
Branagh has another view. 'The
important thing about Coriolanus is that it is a very strong
company play. We have an enormous crowd and they are part of
the progress of the play.'
In addition to a 20-strong cast,
50 extras have been recruited from local townsfolk to swell the
crowds of plebeians and Roman soldiers and their presence, combined
with Chichester's unique thrust stage, predicates a potent dynamic
to the production.
Playing the hero with feet of
clay, Branagh is meanwhile having his own problems. 'Quite frankly,
it's the hardest thing I've ever done in Shakespeare. The language
is tough and, to be honest, hard to understand. There is no lyricism,
the rhythms are difficult. You just hope that by playing it with
heart and passion you can make it clear.'
With the Much Ado film and Hamlet
to come, his commitment to Shakespeare is unswerving. 'It's the
communicative power of Shakespeare that is so compelling. I'm
getting letters from Newcastle and all over the place asking
why we are not taking Coriolanus on tour. The sheer economics
of a show this size say we can't. So the old missionary zeal
takes over and we'll do the film of Much Ado.'
He admits the attraction of the
piece is mainly in that it has not been filmed before. 'No comparisons.
Yes, that's a relief.' He is still completing the cast but it
is likely to include Gerard Depardieu and some high-profile Americans
as well as Renaissance regulars.
'Films are expensive so there
is box-office pressure on casting but I actually want to have
different accents - European, American, black - to make the point
that it is for everyone. I don't want it to be insular. I want
it to be as real as possible.
'Much Ado is also very pertinent
about love, however cliched that sounds, and says something about
how important that power is. I feel a need right now to send
out a positive message. I think we need it.'
He quotes the same motive about
the recently completed film, Peter's Friends, to be released
in the autumn. 'The film is a personal statement about the importance
of friendship and enjoying it as it happens and not thinking
about some sort of race you are in for achievement or whatever.'
His decision to return to Hamlet,
after playing it five years ago under Derek Jacobi's direction,
came as a surprise. 'It just felt right. The first time you play
these roles it's mostly a question of getting through it. Now,
perhaps, I'll be able to bring something else to bear. I feel
a bit more fit for it and it will be pretty well the full version.'
We talked about his Hollywood
experience and he carefully refined his thoughts about films.
'I'm not a pure director and it will be some time before I regard
myself as a film director per se. But if I am able to make films
there is much more point in doing it over here because everyone
knows how hard it is to make a British film. It's the old Puritan
work ethic, I suppose.'
And with his sleeves still firmly
rolled up, he strode off back to work.
DAME Judi Dench's brow furrowed
forlornly. 'It's the English disease. I know no other country
like it for this sort of thing.' Richard Briers, chivvying busily
at her side, weighed in: 'It makes me so angry, it's all so unnecessary
and I don't like it.'
The subject of their joint concern
was the epidemic of Branagh-bashing which has followed the progress
of our Ken and which ranges from charges of rampant ego and o'er-vaulting
ambition to being pilloried for having red hair and thin lips.
Mr Briers wanted to set the record
straight. 'What does he do? He creates employment, he is dedicated
to Shakespeare, he's a workaholic, he makes very little money
because most of it goes back into the company. Unfortunately,
it is not uncommon to knock someone who can do these things.
In my book, he's heroic.'
Both Briers and the Dame have
reason to be grateful to the young Irishman who barnstormed out
of Rada to become a new theatrical force in the land, but it
did not detract from the merit of their case.
Branagh took Briers away from
TV situation comedy and cast him as a classic actor in roles
like Malvolio, King Lear and Uncle Vanya. The actor says quite
simply: 'He has given me a new lease of life.'
Dame Judi was persuaded into
directing for the Renaissance company and staged its Much Ado
About Nothing production before going on to direct The Boys From
Syracuse in the Open Air Theatre last summer.
She said: 'Directing was something
I'd never ever thought of doing until Ken suggested it. To be
honest, I still can't say I enjoy it wholeheartedly but I find
it a terrific help when I'm back on the other side as an actress.'
The only difference between the
two is that Mr Briers knows he has been hired for Branagh's film
of Much Ado while Dame Judi is still waiting. She said: 'He hasn't
said anything yet but I'm spending a lot of time hanging round
his dressing room door.'
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