'I try not to let the depression torture me'
The Times (London), March 15
by Noreen Taylor
*thanks to Catherine Kerrigan
Despite his success at a young
age, Kenneth Branagh says sometimes when he wakes 'everything
is grey'. This is why, he tells Noreen Taylor, he is obsessed
Doubtless the begrudgers will
be sharpening their teeth when they realise that Mr Clever Clogs
has gone and done it again. Yes, Kenneth Branagh has adapted
yet another Shakespeare play for the cinema.
Not only adapted, but coproduced,
directed, sung, danced and starred in it. The foremost modern
interpreter of Shakespeare has transformed Love's Labour's Lost
into a Thirties musical extravaganza set against the backdrop
of the Second World War.
Capturing some of the most memorable
scenes from Hollywood's heyday - with dashes of Fred and Ginger,
Busby Berkeley and Casablanca, all linked with Pathé News
pastiches - he has come up with something rather special.
Once again, in this, his fourth
Shakespeare movie adaptation, he has made his hero's work accessible
to a contemporary audience. Yet Branagh, off stage, off camera,
remains as inaccessible as ever.
He has been an important player
for a long time, and it shows. During the Dorchester Hotel publicity
junket for the film, it is clear that the former eager-to-please
persona that once greeted press questions has been supplanted
by veils of seen-it-all weariness, even wariness. Who can blame
him? The tides of adulation that initially greeted the boy genius
waned long ago. Well before he made it clear he would never talk
about his former wife, Emma Thompson, or their divorce - not
to mention the end of his affair with Helena Bonham Carter -
came the first drips of bitchiness. They rapidly became a flood
as the press's green-eyed chorus boys and girls snooped and sniped.
Our Ken, they decided, was too
precious, too ambitious, too much the luvvie of newspaper fantasy.
Who did he think he was, writing his biography when still in
Yet those who have worked with
him - actors, singers, musicians - tell a very different story.
They drool about how fabulously helpful and funny he is to work
with, not in the least uppity or temperamental. (Here, I had
better declare an interest. Among his fans, and starring in Love's
Labour's Lost, is my daughter, Natascha McElhone. Since that
fact didn't seem to influence the way Branagh treated me, I haven't
let it affect me either).
In the business, he has many
defenders. One of the musicians who worked with him on Hamlet
once asked me, genuinely baffled, what it was about Branagh that
made the media want to knock him down. His voice rising, he said:
"This guy brings us work, revitalises Shakespeare, makes
stuff happen! How bad can that be?"
Branagh smiles at the anecdote,
saying that his friends worry more than him about the criticism.
"On my behalf, they are more sensitive than me. Fortunately,
there have been many champions of my work. I tend not to get
caught up in theorising, but I'd be dishonest if I told you some
of it didn't hurt. Maybe it's the price you pay for being successful.
Anyway, rude, cruel words have a transient impact since, on the
whole, I feel so blessed."
It is possible, of course, that
he isn't entirely blameless. He can seem rather remote, and it
is noticeable that the man patiently dealing with my questions
seems altogether a more closed, cold creature than the warm,
smiling one I bump into later in the company of pals such as
Timothy Spall, another Love's Labour star.
Is one an act and the other real?
Are they both acts? "Close friends describe me as a loner,"
he says. "But I'm never lonely. I'm pretty much at ease
in my own company."
On a hunch, I ask if he is a
depressive. Without demurring for a second, he confesses: "Sure,
big-time. It's hard to get out of. Deep, deep, deep and wide-ranging.
Hamlet sums up clinical depression, which is possibly why I'm
obsessed with the play. There is no sense to it either. It doesn't
seem to be connected with work, or events in your life. You just
wake up one morning and everything is grey. Nothing makes sense.
Reality is tilted downwards."
And no, success does not help
or alter anything either.
"So many people I know are
prone to it. I try not to let it torture me. The only way, I've
found, is to get up and exercise. Getting the old endorphins
busy seems to help. Hoepfully, it has gone away for a while.
I certainly haven't had it since working on Love's Labour's Lost.
I rarely admit or talk about it." A pause. Then he suddenly
snaps out of his moments of self-reflection: "Why should
I bother, with all the blessings in my life."
This suggestion that good fortune
rather than talent has guided him to the top is endearing. Mere
luck and ambition on their own couldn't have ignited the interest
of Shakespeare veterans such as Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi in
a 25-year-old actor. "With me it's always been a matter
of, having to, rather than wanting to. Anyway, it's passion that
drives isn't it? Going for what you dream of, for what you want."
Rather than follow vogues, he
has had the confidence to follow whatever fantasies make his
heart soar, to put his dreams on screen. They, in turn, have
propelled him from working class Belfast to where he currently
stands, straddling the heady heights of Hollywood and classical
As a little boy, his first experience
of that other world so removed from his own was watching Morecambe
and Wise on TV and then peering into the back of the set trying
to discover where they had gone.
He soon discovered the route.
Six weeks after leaving RADA, he was starring on the West End
stage in Another Country. Six years later the wunderkind was
directing and starring in the award-winning Henry V.
While still in his mid-twenties,
he founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, where he began to
recruit some of the theatres great classical actors to join him.
"getting up the courage to make those telephone calls was
terrifying," he says. "Of course I was shy, and that
kind of terror never leaves you, but I'm a great believer in
taking the baby steps first.
"Telling people how frightened
you are helps to control the fear, no matter how raging. Innocence
helps too. It's only recently struck me how reckless, how youthfully
optimistic I was. I'd think, why not? They can only turn me down.
Those are qualities I'd like to hold on to, that ability to be
trustful, naive. I'm still awed by talent, star-struck by people
like Robert Altman and Woody Allen."
Branagh recalls his childhood
in Belfast as a time when he had a great sense of place and belonging.
"I feel Irish. I don't think you can take Belfast out of
the boy. I came from the kind of street where everyone knew everyone
else. Surrounded by dozens of cousins and friends, it was like
living with a large extended family. Maybe that's why I was drawn
to the theatre, as another way of belonging to a large family.
Then we had to leave Belfast and maybe that's what sowed the
seeds of discord." Hence the flowering of creativity.
His father, a Protestant, worked
as a joiner and although the family lived in a predominantly
Protestant street, they lived peacefully with their few Roman
Catholic neighbours. Then came a night of terror during which
Protestant mobs began burning Catholics out of their houses.
Shortly after, the Branaghs and
their children left for Reading in England. "I was nine
and I remember quickly adopting an English accent for school,
while keeping the Irish one for home. Being Irish, I'd always
had this love of words, although I hadn't a clue how to become
"Working class families
tend not to be too in touch with such worlds. It was a teacher
in the sixth form who told me, after I'd joined the drama society,
that I had something and suggested I might try for drama school."
A grant from Berkshire County Council provided the opportunity
his parents could not afford. Not surprisingly, they were concerned
about their younger son's career choice. Having tried hard to
imprint the philosophy of not rising above one's station, here
was this dreamy, book-obsessed boy with dreams of acting in and
directing Shakespeare. How unlike their elder boy, Bill, who
did the sensible thing and joined the telecoms industry.
"They used to come along
and watch me in plays and say they enjoyed it, but they wouldn't
know. My parents are the reason I wanted to make Shakespeare
available to ordinary people. But they didn't try to dissuade
me. I think they realised how futile any opposition would be
when they saw my determination. Their chief concerns were that
this was an area where they could be of no assistance and that
maybe I would change.
"I'd been acting for five
years when my father asked a friend of mine, 'Do you think he
has a chance?' "
You might imagine that, since
he thrives on his close-knit families, the theatrical one as
well as the Belfast tribe, he would miss not being part of a
couple any longer. After all, he is 40-year-old bachelor. Does
he ever wonder what it would be like to have a child?
"Of course I do. I'd love
to have a child," he says, and is rescued from the need
to elucidate when an aide interrupts to inform him that Harvey
Weinstein, the head of Miramax and therefore the Hollywood money
behind Love's Labour, is due to call shortly.
Branagh, about to put on his
producer hat, wants to end our conversation on his terms, on
an up note. "I'm comfortable with life as it is now."
The tone is friendly but brisk
and you almost long for him to relax, to reveal the stimulating
generous man with the Pied Piper quality that attracts so much
talent to his side. Sadly, Branagh chooses to bring the curtain
down, allowing only those in his own circle to enjoy his charismatic
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium