Kenneth Branagh: 'An Audience of 100,000 Makes For a Different Feeling In the Tights'
At a Guardian Live event, the actor-director was joined by members of his theatre company to discuss their upcoming season at the Garrick
The Guardian, 9 October 2015
Kenneth Branagh remembers seeing the RSC’s 1978 production of 'Measure for Measure': “I understood how crystal clear this ancient language could be ... it was a formative moment.” The Duke was played by Michael Pennington, who now joins Branagh in the latter’s theatre company, about to open their inaugural season, Plays at the Garrick, in the West End. For Pennington, the company is “something I’ve been waiting to see most of my working life, which is a real model of how to do Shakespeare … There’s a marvellous mixture here of an ensemble of 25 actors. It’s like a body where every muscle works very well.”
The pair were speaking at a revealing and good-natured Guardian Live panel discussion, moderated by Mark Lawson. Branagh was joined by members of his creative team: actors Pennington and Jessie Buckley, and directors Rob Ashford and Benjamin Caron. (When Lawson wonders what the dynamic between co-directors Branagh and Ashford is, Branagh suggests “bad cop, bad cop” – only for Buckley to suggest, “No, good fairies!”)
The company’s opening production is 'The Winter’s Tale'. Branagh takes the role of Leontes and co-directs with Ashford; Judi Dench plays Paulina. It’s a role reversal of sorts, Dench having directed Branagh in a 1988 production of 'Much Ado About Nothing' for his earlier company, Renaissance. His utter love of Shakespeare has also resulted in the season’s gleefully meta programming of 'Romeo and Juliet' alongside 'Harlequinade', a Terence Rattigan play set amid a Romeo and Juliet production.
'The Winter’s Tale' is sold out but will be shown live in cinemas worldwide. Branagh has a nicely self-deprecating humour when talking about the “tightrope quality” of live-streamed performances: “If you know you’re going on in front of 100,000 people that makes for” – his voice lowers – “a different feeling in the tights. And you have to contain and control that.”
His passion for Shakespeare is infectious, as he talks about seeing 'Romeo and Juliet' as a teenager: “I remember being comfortable in not understanding all or even much of it, but being transfixed ... this was about youthful love, sex, gangs, violence.”
“In the hands of these actors, this incendiary engagement with very ancient language kept me leaning forward … and not being daunted by the way it stretched out way beyond, in terms of the mystery of it, to a place I would never get to. It’ll keep receding from me – but that’s partly what keeps me moving towards it.”
Branagh is relaxed about tweaking the Bard to make him more legible to today’s audiences (“If that is part of keeping something alive that would otherwise be enslaved … that’s an important thing”) and gently chides those who give away too much in reviews (“I’m pro-mystery”). He’s not intimidated by Laurence Olivier, who defined Archie Rice in 'The Entertainer', another company production that Branagh will take the lead in: “You put it in your own soil. Sometimes you keep a long way from apparently indelible performances; you come back to the material and the writing.”
And while he doesn’t offer up any solution to the central debate in acting at the moment – the worry that working-class voices are being excluded – he does make a firm commitment in his capacity as Rada president: “Those who feel passionate, that are talented, that want to pursue it, should not be denied the opportunity of following their passions and expressing their gifts. All those things we should try very positively to enable. Rada are very aware of the challenge.”
There’s something Izzard-ish about him as he builds to a climactic anecdote about shooting a nine-minute unbroken take for his 1989 film of 'Henry V', hands darting. “Derek Jacobi, he was loving this – ‘any more things for me to think about?’ Julie Christie was looking white. Timothy Spall was just in a corner …” He briefly morphs into Spall’s hangdog face.
At the close, an actor in the audience asks for advice, and Pennington is melancholy: “You‘re going to get hurt; we all have disappointments. I’ve seen people twisted, and disappointed, and therefore becoming less of a person, and therefore less of an actor.”
Branagh is the opposite, merely advising: “Be cheerful.”
The Winter’s Tale opens at the Garrick theatre, London, on 17 October.