Shaking Up Shakespeare
Houston Chronicle, December 10
by Jeff Millar
Young British actor/director
Kenneth Branagh produces a movie `Henry V' for the masses
He did "what?"
Made his own version of one of
the most revered films ever made in England, Laurence Olivier's
wartime patriotic pick-me-up "Henry V." As Sir Laurence
How dare he!
Like Olivier, he made his debut
as a director with this "Henry. "And, like Olivier,
he acted Henry, too.
Rewrote it a bit. Interpolated
scenes from "Falstaff."
Like Olivier at the National
Theater, he's an actor-manager, too, on the old English theatrical
model. Has his own company, the Renaissance Theater. Did "Hamlet."
Gets people like Derek Jacobi to direct him.
Says things in interviews like,
"If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing movies."
Says things like, "Shakespeare
wrote for the "Lethal Weapon II" crowd."
He's 28 years old.
That's "Aaaugh" as
in Kenneth Branagh, who is out to bring Shakespeare to the mall
rats of America. If it means a soupcon of pandering, like hairstyles
on the guys that wouldn't look strange in a Levi's 501s commercial,
well, OK. In Branagh 's half hour in the Chronicle building,
neither he nor I used the word "gnarly" in reference
to "Henry V." But you have the idea that if the word
did appear, Branagh wouldn't kick it out the window.
Houston was the last, slightly
bleary stop of a three-week, 15-city publicity tour Branagh was
doing on behalf of his "Henry-Five" (if you want to
be English and theatrical, that's how you refer to it). This
"H-5" began life in the Renaissance Theater, which
Branagh founded. The film version is vest-pocket-sized; his budget,
some of which came from the BBC-TV, was $8 million. Compared
to Olivier's production, the happy, happy few at Branagh 's battle
of Agincourt are even fewer.
Although he was brought up on
movies as a child in Belfast, Branagh said he became a movie
director not because he wanted to become a movie director but
because of the Cause: bringing Shakespeare "in a popular
medium to a modern audience which has suffered through its being
badly done for generations."
"There is so much smugness
in the way Shakespeare is acted on the stage," said Branagh
, who then gave a particularly snippy imitation of the default
deluxe English-Shakespearean-actor reading. "This medium
can do something about that."
In addition to the men's hairstyles
("more the essence of the time, not as slicked-back and
sculptured and foppish as is traditional") Branagh has taken
steps that he characterizes alternately as liberties and enhancements.
Branagh believes that the Shakespearean viscera has been high-cultured
to the point that it has become a "miserable experience
for all the teen-agers of the United States and England - it's
really rammed down our throats back home - who are forced to
sit through it."
"When I show this film to
American high-school kids," he said, "I can hear an
almost audible sigh of relief: `We're not in "church.""'
Cinemas in England say that the film's reaching quite a down-market
audience, including woman. I tried not to make this `boysy."'
He's searched for ways to speak
the dialogue that is "more realistic sounding but still
holds on to the elements of poetry that make the hair stand up."
And rather than regard "H-5" as a "patriotic effort,"
like you-know-who's 45 years ago, Branagh is convinced that Shakespeare
asks audiences to think about this: "If you accept the expediencies
of war, is this the best way to do it?"
Branagh is selling his "H-5"
as "an action-adventure story about a young man's emotional
journey toward maturity." Henry was almost exactly Branagh
's age at Agincourt (you-know-who was 38 for his "H-5)."
"Of all Shakespeare's kings, he's the one we admire as much
for his flaws as his (good) qualities. He was prone to passionate
As much as any Shakespeare, "H-5"
has "points of identification to very modern obsessions"
such as the one we have with the private lives of public leaders,
Branagh said. "We've grown pretty cynical about our leaders
and what we expect from how we are to be led. Were the British
tabloid press in business back in the 15th century, they'd be
searching for Henry's laundry."
Branagh puts a contemporary frame
around his "H-5." The first line - "Oh, for a
muse of fire!" - is spoken on a movie sound stage, behind
the period sets, by Jacobi, in modern dress. Jacobi functions
as Shakespeare's narrator, showing up in the same modern dress
in several places, including the battlefields.
"I needed to disarm the
audience," Branagh said, "and I needed a style in cinematic
terms that met theatrical terms. Derek is the medieval news reporter,
Brechtian if you will, who reminds the audience who gets romantically
involved with Henry that he might be a little paranoid."
Branagh is not enough a popularizer
to support the conversion of Shakespeare into contemporary vernacular.
He can find passages in Shakespeare that "express the way
I feel better than any contemporary phrase."
"`This revolt is like another
fall of man' is simply a more powerful way to say `You make me
mad,"' he said. But as for non-traditional stagings, such
as the Alley's recent setting of "Measure for Measure"
in the 1930s, he said, "full stop." That translates
from the British as "go for it."
Branagh will bring his Renaissance
Theater productions of "King Lear" (he's Edgar) and
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" (he's the Prince) to Los
Angeles in January. He's doing workshops with American actors
to get them over their fear of Shakespeare.
And there's one emulation of
Olivier that this self-described renegade is ready to embrace.
If Hollywood will have him, he's going Hollywood. Olivier made
dozens of films "and still stayed `proper,"' he said.
"People who admire me say that I should stay `pure.' Why
shouldn't I go Hollywood? What's this `pure, proper' career I'm
supposed to have?
"I'd like to play an American,"
he said. "I think I'd like to play a baseball player."
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