On The Throne
Irish News, July 28, 1997
by Colin McAlpin
Belfast film-maker Kenneth
Branagh reveals the motives for his Shakespearean masterpiece,
Hamlet, in an exclusive interview with Arts Editor Colin McAlpin...
Only Kenneth Branagh could have
done it. The Belfast-born actor - and writer, producer and director,
such is the man's remarkable talents - has such an international
reputation as one of the world's leading directors of Shakespeare
on film that he was able to bring together a cast of staggering
variety for his latest epic, the making of Hamlet.
As well as what might now be
considered the Branagh Rep Company - Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi
Dench, Richard Briers - he has in the line-up Sir John Gielgud,
Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie,
Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams.
"The big names in the cast
did not take their roles for the money since we didn't have a
big enough budget to pay Hollywood-style fees...they were all
very keen to be in what they perhaps perceived as the definitive
screen Hamlet," says Branagh, who as well as taking the
title role adapted the classic for the screen and directed it.
"I tried to be astute in my choices and go for actors I
thought would be right for the roles and would do the film justice.
"For instance, Jack Lemmon
is very moving as Marcellus, Charlton Heston has great majesty
as the Player King and Billy Crystal is very funny as the Gravedigger
but without tipping over into farce."
Branagh, of course, has a formidable
reputation for mixing often unlikely casts and coming up with
a triumph: he did it brilliantly for Much Ado About Nothing.
"This production is cast
colour-blind, nationality-blind, accent-blind. I wanted to work
with people I had admired for a number of years and who I thought
would be very good for the parts. The financing from Castle Rock
was in no way conditional on casting, so I had a free hand. I
wanted to encourage the kind of diversity where you could have
a number of classically trained actors as well as exciting new
elements. I thought it would provide a healthy clash of approaches
that would keep this version as refreshing and original as possible."
Filming Hamlet, Shakespeare's
longest play, has long been one of Branagh's cherished desires...for
seven years, ever since he made Henry V, his first screen version
of a Shakespeare classic. Actually his love of Hamlet goes back
even further, he has been intrigued - obsessed even - since he
first saw the play on stage when he was 15.
"I was completely struck
by the power of the play," he recalls, "It even seemed
to affect me physically, I had the shakes. I couldn't stop thinking
about it. I was astonished by what a terrific thriller it was.
It had everything - murder, violence, intrigue, passion, a ghost
- and I experienced a part of what made Hamlet so profoundly
exciting and powerful. It was utterly compelling."
He wanted to make a full-text
version as well as a conventional length film - the former will
be a 70mm version (the first British film in more than 25 years
to use this spectacular format) and the latter a 35mm version
- because, he explains: "By filming the entire play, you
have Shakespeare's complete entertainment. I do not want the
audience to be filled with dread the fact that we are using all
of the text. In practice, it's a bonus. There are so many additional
exciting elements to take advantage of.
"For instance, Hamlet is
one of the wittiest plays ever written, with some of the bleakest
and the broadest humour. This comic element is a necessary complement
to the play's emotional demands. But whatever length the play
is, it's difficult to resist the power of the drama itself. From
the very first moment, it rivets the attention. Two men see something
'out there', they don't know what it is, and they're terrified.
This suspense is a building-block for the thriller to come. Hamlet
has all the dramatic devices needed to keep an audience enthralled."
His star-studded cast certainly
loved working with Branagh, as Lemmon was quoted as saying: "Kenneth
is in total command. He knows what he wants but doesn't impose
that on his actors. He allows them to bring their own feelings
and their interpretation to the part and then will make suggestions
- a little more here, a little less there. Like all good directors,
he has the security to allow other people to bring what they've
got to offer."
"Ken," adds Lord Richard
Attenborough (and, yes, he has a part in the film, that of the
British ambassador), "is an extraordinary young man. When
he's directing, he knows exactly which buttons to press for an
actor. He knows when to offer criticism, when to encourage. He
knows exactly what he wants."
Branagh has played Hamlet quite
often on stage - "I've played the part probably about 200-300
times," he says - and has found his performance has changed,
not only because he is more familiar with the part but because
- "I hope" - he has matured himself: "When Derek
Jacobi directed me in 1988, I was a pretty hectic Hamlet. This
is a man who is funny, passionate, ironic, self-aware, yet engaged
in a familiar struggle to find personal peace and happiness.
I think my performance has deepened as I've got a little older
and, hopefully, a little wiser. The role is like a great piece
of music that you come back to again and again and always hear
Hamlet is, of course, one of
the most filmed of Shakespeare's plays - we only recently had
a fine version from Mel Gibson - so there has to be a good reason
for wanting to do it again: "This is a play that reflects
the personality, the temperament and the preoccupations of the
individuals who are doing it, so that as soon as anyone else
does it, it is shown in a very different kind of light.
"Something like this offers
a massive canvas. It encapsulates a very personal look at what
it means to be a human being, to be alive, how to find peace
of mind and to be subject to all the paranoids, insecurities,
passions and emotions that we experience. A whole survey of human
nature...what better canvas could you wish for?"
The film is set in the 19th Century,
a period in Europe's history when borders were changing and when
royal families controlled large empires. In the story,"
he says, "the impact of the events of one royal family is
felt right across Europe. At the end of the film, when Fortinbras
takes over, the map of Europe has been redrawn. The 19th Century
setting allows for an opulent, elegant and powerful look. It
brings the story closer to us but remains at a sufficient distance
for us to accept that the characters speak in a heightened language."
Playing Hamlet, Branagh says,
has changed his life: "Someone once said that Hamlet is
a hoop through which every actor must jump and they have through
the centuries. The role is something that generates tremendous
excitement in performers and audiences. The play is so full of
quotes that they have become part of everyday language. I think
everyone is aware of the name of Hamlet even if it only conjures
up a rather depressed man in tights. It's a story that intrigues
people and one of the things we wanted to do with that extraordinary
power was divest it of some of the cliches and just reveal it
to be what we think it is: a quite wonderful story."
Branagh has never been afraid
to have a hands-on approach to a wide range of jobs when making
films. But didn't he ever fear he might be taking on too much?
"For any other project,
yes, I would have that fear. But Hamlet has been in my blood
for such a long time, over half my life. I have strong feelings
about how I see the character. I was compelled to do this, I
could do it no other way. It's such a huge piece so the challenge
of trying to do the genius of the writer justice - from the performances,
to the sets, to the costumes, to the music - was simply irresistible."
For Branagh, the film chalks
up another triumph and a long-held dream realised: "I think
this represents the culmination of all our efforts to prove that
what works in the theatre can live in another medium. This film
is partly for those who think of Shakespeare as a dry text which
is 'good for them'. Hamlet has the kind of power, energy and
excitement that cinema can truly exploit."
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