Is Renaissance Theatre's Branagh the New Olivier?
Los Angeles Times, October 16
by Mary Blume
He looks more like James Cagney
than a smoldering classical hero, but in the sweepstakes to inherit
the mantle of Lord Laurence Olivier, the front-runner these days
is 27-year-old Kenneth Branagh, whose Renaissance Theatre Company
has made its London debut with a verve and buoyance that haven't
been seen here since the National Theatre opened under Olivier
20 years ago.
His Hamlet has been described
as "active, impetuous, as tight-lipped as Olivier,"
his Touchstone in "As You Like It," wearing a loud
checked Edwardian suit, recalled Olivier's Archie Rice in "The
Entertainer" for many critics.
As Benedick in the company's
third production, "Much Ado About Nothing," he was,
on the other hand, praised for being very much his own man, richly
comic but deeply touching, a young man in love and not, as is
so often the case, a mature actor giving a fine display of verbal
Branagh himself takes the praise
lightly. He refers to himself as an emerging actor and refuses
to believe in himself as the new Olivier -- "this week's
new Olivier," he says with a grin.
"It's a flattering comparison
that bears no relation to fact," he said in his dressing
room at the Phoenix Theatre, where the Renaissance Company is
playing through October. "I think it says more about the
shadow that that genius casts on the profession in this century
-- anybody who emerges who is doing the classics is treading
the same ground.
"In terms of careers, there's
no comparison. In terms of what we are -- he was a fantastic-looking
matinee idol, I'm not that kind of creature at all. I couldn't
be in any kind of competition with him."
Certainly not competitively but
in an act that will inevitably raise the comparison once again,
Branagh's next project is to direct and star in a film version
of "Henry V," which Olivier filmed so memorably in
Filming on the 4.5 million production
($8 million U.S.) will begin at Shepperton Studios a week after
St. Crispin's Day when the Renaissance Company's London season
is over. Branagh, who spends his days in pre-production at Shepperton,
has directed on the stage but "Henry V" marks his first
go at film.
"This will be the full hubristic
number," he says.
Olivier was 37 when he made "Henry
V" as a thrilling patriotic spectacle for war-weary Britain.
Henry was the same age as Branagh when he fought at Agincourt.
"There are lots of references
to the journey toward maturity that he goes through in the play,"
Branagh says. "That's one of the things that his film was
less concerned with and that we can afford to be more concerned
with. It's something we will see writ large on rather young features.
"I believe that it could
be a truly popular film, that the audience that wants to see
'Rambo III' could also be stimulated to see 'Henry Five,' not
just because it's a splendid narrative that some people think
is sort of 'Boys Own,' but because it's a very thought-provoking
piece which says a lot in a complicated and ambiguous way, it
seems to me, about war."
Branagh's last film role as an
actor was a sensitive World War I veteran in "A Month in
the Country." He has done a great deal of television, ranging
from Charles Tansley in "To the Lighthouse" to Guy
Pringle in the series "The Fortunes of War." As co-founder
and artistic director of the Renaissance Theatre Company, he
admits there are times when he feels hampered by his attachment
to the group.
"But it's a small price
to pay. It's sometimes sad to hear that some extraordinary film
with lots of money and exciting locations has gone because one
wasn't available, but mind you I think that as soon as you do
become available they ask someone else."
Born in Northern Ireland, Branagh
left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1981 with a clutch
of acting awards including the Bancroft Gold Medal. He went straight
to an award-winning performance in "Another Country"
and in 1984, he became a contender as a classical actor in a
season with the Royal Shakespeare Company which included a widely
praised "Henry V."
He has written several plays,
including "Public Enemy," a political melodrama set
in Belfast in which he played a Cagney look-alike. From the start,
he has shown an agility and intensity that required a wide field
of action. After his brilliant commercial and classical debuts,
he chose to spend some time in London's fringe theater, where
he developed the idea for the Renaissance Theatre with actor
David Parfitt, who is in charge of administration.
The Renaissance, founded in April,
1987, is a young and flexible touring company performing classical
and modern works. It receives no subsidies but word of mouth
was sufficient for its first London season with an advance of
One of the attention-getting
features of the Renaissance is that its productions are directed
by actors. Branagh, who has the reputation of falling in love
with his leading ladies, has done several productions and in
the current London season "As You Like It" was directed
by Geraldine McEwan, "Much Ado About Nothing" by Dame
Judi Dench, who was herself one of the best Beatrices in recent
memory, and "Hamlet" was directed by Derek Jacobi,
whose own Hamlet in 1979 was the first Branagh ever saw.
Inevitably, inviting leading
actors to direct has been compared to letting the lunatics take
over the asylum. The point, Branagh says, is not to have a company
designed for actor-directors, but simply to redress a balance
in which directors have become all-important.
"It's just to say why shouldn't
Judi Dench direct 'Much Ado' and it needn't mean that she wants
to be a director for the rest of her life, but she may have something
worthwhile and particular to say about the play.," Branagh
said. "I wanted to make less unusual the prospect of other
people doing the same thing."
Branagh is currently at work
on a three-year repertory of classical and contemporary works
for the Renaissance and while he has no illusions that the company
will last forever, he is determined that it will endure for its
For his own career, after a start
at once so brilliant and sure-footed, the whole range of classical
roles stretches randomly ahead.
"I'm superstitious about
those parts.," he said. "I think they're either on
your dance card or not, and I never assume they are. I didn't
assume Hamlet was." He would love to play Iago and also
Macbeth as "an unsuspecting type, a young, open-faced, fair
person. You know he's always cast as dark.
"I'd love, if I'm still
alive and kicking and people will let me do it, to play King
Lear. Especially since there will be a lot of information in
the old tank by then. And it would be lovely to do another Hamlet."
The Branagh boom has reached
boiling level: 17 British publishers bid at a recent auction
for his autobiography. He used the 50,000 advance he received
to get proper offices for the Renaissance and now he must face
writing the book. "Of all the things I'm doing this year,"
he says, "writing the book terrifies me the most."
He is too clever to attempt a
full autobiography at his age, but he says he will probably have
to put in some autobiography because he doesn't have much else
to write about. His plan is to use the book to describe the Renaissance
company: "It's not going to be my life in art or anything,
but the story of a work in progress.
"I've got the title, actually,"
he said, brightening. " 'I Will Tell You the Beginning.'
It's from a line in 'As You Like It,' where Le Beau says, 'I
will tell you the beginning, and, if it please your ladyships,
you may see the end; for the best is yet to be.' "
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