Releasing the Prince
Los Angeles Daily News, January
by Reed Johnson
Since the first time he saw "Hamlet"
performed as an impressionable English schoolboy, it has been
Kenneth Branagh's obsession - if that's not too mild a word.
That first production happened
back in 1977. Branagh was 15, and the mesmerizing lead actor
was one Derek Jacobi, touring the provinces with the Oxford New
Based on that revelatory outing,
Branagh says, he resolved to become an actor, with the aim of
one day performing his own "Hamlet." Over the next
two decades, he circled around Shakespeare's thorniest text,
probing for soft spots.
Finally, he lunged for the jugular.
Three years ago, he starred in a sellout production of the play
with England's Royal Shakespeare Company, eventually logging
more than 250 performances as the Angst-prone Danish aristocrat.
Lobbying since 1989
The four-hour, uncut version
of the epic in which Branagh gets triple billing as adapter,
director and star opened in limited release on Christmas Day;
it opens in Cleveland Friday. He had been lobbying to make the
film since he shook up Hollywood in 1989 with his directorial
debut, Shakespeare's "Henry V."
Yet after finally being able
to do his dream role before a potential audience of millions,
Branagh insists this will be his last stab at the Dane. At 36,
he is nearing the age when actors risk turning Shakespeare's
"sweet prince" into a poster child for chronic arrested
Is Branagh feeling a bit wistful
as he bids adieu to the alter ego who has consumed him for so
"No, it's not hard to let
go, 'cause you never really had hold of it, you know," says
Branagh, surprisingly cheerful at the prospect. "It's a
play about which, delightfully, it's impossible to be proprietorial.
It always yields something."
Taming the part
If Branagh is willing to relinquish
Hamlet, he's also prepared to concede that the devilishly complex
part had eluded him until now.
Looking back on his past Hamlets,
he says, "as far as I can judge them, they definitely were
deficient in some way." He was always, in his own words,
"a very hectic, younger Hamlet."
It took an accumulation of life
experience, a critical mass of ups and downs, for him to be able
to tame the part. For Branagh, that point arrived not a moment
"This was the last age at
which I thought I could possibly play it," he says. "You
know, you're halfway through this biblical 'three-score and 10.'
Branagh's denial that he (or
anyone else) can own Shakespeare's subtlest creation isn't mere
false modesty. Reared in the British tradition of repertory ensemble,
where actors switch back and forth between lead and bit parts,
Branagh sees himself simply as one in a long line of Hamlets
extending back over nine or 10 generations - a temporary caretaker
of a character who belongs to the ages.
Salute to predecessors
Not coincidentally, in casting
"Hamlet," he saluted two of his most illustrious predecessors
in the role: Jacobi, who plays Claudius, Hamlet's murderous,
incestuous uncle; and the ninety- something Sir John Gielgud,
who has a cameo as Priam.
Jacobi, whose own Hamlet for
London's Old Vic was widely considered the best since Richard
Burton's, questions the idea there could be a "definitive"
"Hamlet is such an indefinable
character, really, that in a sense anybody can play it,"
he says. "It's the great personality part. It really depends
on the look and the sound, and the mental and charismatic makeup
of whatever actor is playing Hamlet. There are as many Hamlets
as there are actors to play him really."
The term "father figure"
is kind of problematic in a story about a guy whose uncle murders
his father, then marries the prince's widowed mom. Let's just
say that Branagh looks to both Gielgud and Jacobi as "mentors."
It was Gielgud, after all, who
critiqued Branagh's monologue from "Hamlet" when he
was an anxious drama student at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic
Sir John's verdict: "Too
quick, much too quick."
Tipping of the hat
But that encounter began a 15-year
professional friendship between the two men, which included collaborating
on Branagh's Academy Award-nominated short film, "Swan Song."
"For me, it was important
that Gielgud was in it ['Hamlet'], however briefly, because he
is, I think, the Hamlet of the century,' Branagh says.
According to Jacobi, it's "absolutely
characteristic" of Branagh to tip his hat to fellow actors
who have inspired him over the years.
"It's one of his great gifts,
I think, that he, in a sense, acknowledges the past," says
Jacobi, who directed his friend as Hamlet in a 1988 production
by Renaissance Theatre Company, the classical troupe Branagh
co-founded in 1987.
Rejecting the cliche of Hamlet
as a borderline manic-depressive, Branagh built his characterization
around what he sees as the prince's very normal, human pain over
the death of his father, which occurs before the opening of the
"In the midst of grief,
the floodgates are unlocked on all those other feelings that
we're subject to, that overwhelm the personality at moments of
trauma," Branagh says.
A price to pay
Branagh also wanted the movie
to depict the "isolation of leadership," and the way
that rich, powerful people can be made to squirm when they're
placed in a pressure cooker.
"It makes for an amazing
amount of tension, and I think it gives an audience a precarious
thrill," he observes. "I think they like to know that
that's one of the prices you pay for the privilege of that kind
By modern studio standards, attempting
a full-length "Hamlet" might be taken as proof of insanity.
But Branagh's gambit, like the prince himself, may be mad only
By craftily casting marquee American
actors in small, crucial roles - Charlton Heston as a majestic
Player King, Billy Crystal as a cigar-chomping gravedigger -
Branagh raised the movie's chances of holding its ground.
"There was no intention
to make a long film for its own sake, but to make the film that
we thought told the story the best," he says.
Now that "Hamlet" has
wrapped, Branagh has "no specific plans" to do a fourth
Shakespeare film. (In addition to directing the 1993 "Much
Ado About Nothing," he also played Iago in a 1995 version
of "Othello" opposite Larry Fishburne.)
Aspiring to spy films
Eager to keep his Hollywood resume
as varied as possible, he will be filming a John Grisham drama,
"The Gingerbread Man," with Robert Altman this winter,
and aspires next to do a spy film, "you know, code-breaking
things and that kind of stuff."
As for "Hamlet," well,
there'll always be another generation to worry about him.
"Yeah, it will be 'cheerio,'
Branagh says. "You won't see me pulling on the black tights
and the floppy white shirt anymore. I'll leave it to somebody
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