Kenneth Branagh's Bard Belies Bombast
Kansas City Star, June 13 1993
by Robert Butler
You always have to have a creative
reason for what you do," actor director Kenneth Branagh
said. "If you're calculating, if you try to put together
a package which superficially would seem to attract more people,
you get found out. The gods won't let you get away with that.
Branagh, 32, the "boy wonder"
who shot to international fame when he starred in and directed
the 1989 film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V," had
just been asked why, with hundreds of classically trained British
actors ready to do service, he had given major roles in his "Much
Ado About Nothing" to American movies stars such as Denzel
Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Keaton.
It wasn't because he was worried
that big names were necessary to ensure the success of the Bard
at the box office, Branagh said in a recent telephone interview.
The main reason he wanted Americans
on board for the sunny comedy of love (it opens Friday at the
Tivoli at Manor Square) was that he didn't want to fall into
the same old stuffy Shakespearean traps.
"I wanted people asking
different questions from different points of view, people who
could give us a different cultural approach to the material,"
Branagh said. "I didn't want this movie to appeal just to
a small club of British intellectuals. "
In conversation, Branagh made
it clear he wasn't a member of that club. Despite having tackled
many of the great Shakespearean roles, Branagh offscreen is salty,
ribald and blessed with an impish sense of humor. He grew up
in the era of Clint Eastwood and the Sex Pistols and admits he's
a product of pop culture, a fact reflected in his films "Dead
Again," a Hitchcockian thriller, and "Peter's Friends,"
described as a British "Big Chill. " That also explains
why with "Much Ado" he tried to make a popular film
that just happened to be based on the Bard.
You might think that the British
public would hold Shakespeare in high esteem - or at least appreciate
him more than your average American. But, says Branagh, it isn't
"It's just as much of a
problem for us back home as it is for you Americans," he
said. "Generation after generation of English kids are forced
at age 14 to eat this Shakespeare stuff. They're told he's good,
he's brilliant and he's yours. Only the kids don't make any connection
with why he's so good. So there's a resentment, an built-in resistance
to the guy.
"It's been a personal mission
of mine to get rid of the stiffness, the reverential quality
infecting Shakespearean performances. You know: Actors doing
Shakespeare act oddly. They don't behave like human beings. The
only reason I can see to do Shakespeare on film is if these characters
live and seem real, dealing with situations all of us can identify
"With `Much Ado' the situation
is love. Anybody who has been in love can identify with it. But
we mustn't put some strange thing on Shakespeare - you know,
having people speaking in these odd voices (here Branagh affected
a rumbling, stentorian sound). The classic reports of actual
performances in Shakespeare's day comment on their immediacy,
not on that bombastic quality we associate with Shakespearean
theater at its worst. "
"Much Ado" benefits
from having been written in a way that minimizes the temptation
for phony delivery of lines, Branagh said.
"It's so naturalistic that
it really disarms people. When I was doing this play in the theater
people would come up and tell me they couldn't believe it was
400 years old because it was so direct. "
Certainly Branagh's most controversial
bit of casting is having comic actor Micheal Keaton portray Dogberry,
the officious constable who is just stupid and pompous enough
to be dangerous. Employing a gravelly "Ahoy, Matey! "
pirate voice and pretending to ride an invisible horse, Keaton's
Dogberry seems guaranteed to blow the minds of purists.
"I've seen that part played
so badly and so slowly on stage that it's put the play on the
floor," Branagh said. "I wanted a brave, bold performance
that would provide a surreal quality. And the vividness with
which it's performed is exactly in the same spirit as the performances
of Will Kemp, one of Shakespeare's great clowns, who was chucked
out of the company for ad-libbing too much. I just know Kemp
would have given a very physical performance.
"I figured Dogberry would
be the hardest character to do for a modern audience. He's one
of those dangerous, thick people who believe they are intelligent
and responsible but are actually a few sandwiches short of a
picnic. For example, the whole idea of having him ride in on
an imaginary horse...We shot it several ways, including just
having him walk and run, but this way was bigger and bolder.
"The truth - and I'll probably
be struck by lightning for saying so - is that a lot of those
Dogberry gags just aren't funny as written. The fun is in the
size of the man's ego and his assurances about his own competence
as a constable.
"I believe the closest thing
to genuine Shakespeare in this century were the vaudevillians,
who had to deal with rowdy audiences, a real cross section of
people. Michael gave us a very dangerous and slightly bawdy performance,
and I think it was absolutely right. "
Also absolutely right are the
performances of Branagh and his real-life wife, Oscar-winner
Emma Thompson, as Shakespeare's great bickering lovers, Benedict
Because he had played Benedict
several times on stage, Branagh at first was concerned that Thompson,
who never had portrayed Beatrice, might have trouble catching
up with him.
"I already had a sense of
where people were likely to laugh because of my stage experiences,"
he noted. "It's hard to time a comedy on film, because there's
no audience there to respond. "
But if anything, he said, he
had to race to keep up with his wife.
"She's a very fine actress
and a great pro, and what was really useful for me as a director
was that she's very good with the cast and crew. She leads by
example. She takes an interest in the whole thing, the entire
production, and in setting this atmosphere by her own example,
it takes such a weight off my shoulders.
"She served as my proxy
in dealing with the other actors. She wasn't doing it to be nice
to her husband. It's just Em. You talk to James Ivory (director
of `Howards End,' for which Thompson won her Academy Award) about
that. She's a natural leader.
"The odd thing is that in
the past we've never thought of ourselves as a team. Em did `Howards
End' without me. And since then she's done a couple of pictures
on her own. I'm about to make `Frankenstein' without her.
"But we'll work together
on certain projects because it's just so right. To date there
have been no disadvantages to the arrangement. "
The other big help Branagh the
director received while making "Much Ado" came from
the shooting location - a Renaissance estate in Tuscany, Italy,
where the historic Mona Lisa of Leonardo fame is said to have
"Of course there are probably
15 other villa owners in the neighborhood who would love to spin
the same story," Branagh said, laughing.
In any case, he said, the land
- "the lushness, the calm, the sunsets, the colors, the
quality of the light" - all contributed to a magical and
romantic experience both on and off camera.
"The setting contributed
enormously to the mood of the actors, to the specialness of it.
I know everybody who showed up for this shoot thought, `What
an amazing gig this is. I'm going to enjoy this.'
"And of course they did.
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