Enter the Outsider
London Times, August 8, 1987
by Bryan Appleyard
When Kenneth Branagh played
Henry at Stratford, he took the stage as if he owned it. Bryan
Appleyard talks to one of the theatre's brightest young hopes.
At the age of 16, Kenneth Branagh
made his first trip to Stratford. He lived in a tent and saw
Michael Hordern in The Tempest, Jonathan Pryce in The Taming
of the Shrew and Michael Pennington in Measure for Measure. He
also sat in the Dirty Duck - the actors' pub - with a Coca-Cola,
eavesdropping on conversations and hoping that people would take
him for an actor. He even plucked up the corage to ask the house
manager at the theatre to let him see backstage.
"He was born to act,"
says Hugh Crutwell, the principal at RADA during the two and
a half years Branagh studied there. "He is an acting animal."
Ask people in the business to
name the brightest hope for British theatre and many of them
would select Branagh. At 26, he has two key stage performances
behind him - Henry V at Stratford and Tommy Judd in Another Country
- and he is now running his own company, the Renaissance, which
has just began its first season with a play written by and starring
"He was a complete surprise,"
says Adrian Noble, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare
Company, who directed Branagh in Henry V. "I wanted a young
Henry, and I expected to have to lead him through a role of that
size. But he knew where he was going from the beginning. He knew
how to take an audience with him. Above all, he just gets on
The profession, quite simply,
adores him and through his new management role he is already
taking on the mantle of the new Oliver. His personality helps.
Branagh's energy and confidence have raised hopes that, once
again, actors may run the show.
He was born in December, 1960,
to a working-class Protestant family living in Mountcollyer Street,
North Belfast. Of a disciplined but happy childhood, he recalls
the extraordinary closeness of family and community as well as
the awesome rigour of his primary school. But his father, a carpenter,
found work easier to come by in England and wanted to move. Nine-year-old
Kenneth, his older brother and his mother, by then pregnant with
his sister, all resisted. But one night a Protestant mob fomr
another part of town swarmed up the street, took up the iron
gratings on the drains and flung them through the windows of
the few Catholic houses. The next day the barricades were up
and at the end of the street the Troubles were udner way. Mrs
Branagh agreed to move.
At 13 he wrote to the Reading
Evening Post complaining about their failure to cover children's
books. He was made the paper's reviewer, writing a Junior Bookshelf
column for three years, and the notion grew that he would become
a journalist. But he suspected he could never take the grind
of working his way up through locals and, besides, he had been
bitten by theatre.
As his A levels approached, his
father wearily tried to persuade him to do some work. But he
just scraped through, having been unable to put theatre to one
side. Luckily, he was accepted at RADA. Crutwell, who was at
his first audition, played it cool, telling Branagh: "Acting
like that comes ten-a-penny." But now he admits that something
special was clearly happneing. The place at the was never in
doubt and Crutwell was to become a central influence.
In his last term at RADA, Branagh
was cast for a BBC "Play for Today" by Graham Reid
called "Too Late to Talk to Billy", which turned out
to be the first of a trilogy. Then, almost at once, he was cast
for the West End production of Julian Mitchell's Another Country.
The play had been running at Greenwich and there had been uncertainty
about the move to the West End. Some cast changes were insisted
upon - which is where Branagh came in.
With all the casual presumption
of youth, Branagh simply took it in his stride. It was just another
part. The critics saw it differently. Of Branagh's performance,
Irving Wardle remembers: "He was a great discovery, appearing
suddenly out of nowhere, fully matured."
"He was a bit of an outsider
when he first arrived," recalls David Parfitt, who was also
in the cast. "We all used to kid Rupert Everett that this
new boy would put him in the shade. He was one of the lads after
about a week, though." In fact, Branagh's reputation has
been established entirely in heavyweight theatre, contrasting
strongly with the stardom cultivated by Everett through films,
pop records and the gossip columns.
Branagh began his six-month run
in the show with studious devotion. Rising late, eating sensible
breakfasts and resting during the day. It was a regime that exhausted
him. So, as time wore on, he joined the rest of the cast in lunchtime
productions. He discovered that the more he did, the more he
could do. "Mind you," he says, "looking back at
it now, perhaps I should have been clubbing it every night. It
might be my only West End run."
The next year was taken up with
television, a period which left him frustrated and feeling starved
of the theatre and "real acting." With increasingly
typical confidence he organized a one-man show for himself which
involved reading the 1,400 lines of Tennyson's Maud. It was seen
by two RSC casting directors, leading to Henry V.
Again Branagh was, at first,
unamazed. It was a part and he'd got it. Indeed at Stratford
on the first night Anthony Sher recalled him "strolling
around that famous stage as if born on it."
Henry at Stratford and at the
Barbican took up '84 and '85. As the run progressed, Branagh
started working on a play of his own. The play awas Tell Me Honestly,
and it was produced at Newcastle as part of a festival.
At the same time he was beginning
to think of creating his own company - an idea that clearly raised
the institutional hackles at the RSC.
"When I left Stratford in
'85 Terry Hands said he would give me one piece of advice: 'Don't
do it.' He added that Ian McKellan had tried it three times and
failed - I disagree with that, incidentally - and it would ruin
my acting. It's not often said, but it's behind many directors'
But he did finally go ahead,
putting Renaissance together with radically pro-actor gestures
like asking Judi Dench to direct Much Ado About Nothing and Geraldine
McEwan to do the same with As You Like It. "It's marvellous
to be able to do something for ourselves," McEwan says.
"It's a minor revolution, really." Branagh has put
in around 25,000 pounds of his own money and is raising the remainder
of the 250,000 needed from private sources.
Although Branagh will not come
out and say it explicitly, he clearly has little time for the
directing mentality. "I'd much rather be just an actor.
I'd love someone to come along and tell me just to play these
parts and give all your energy to this company. But the atmosphere
doesn't seem right for that to happen. I've talked to a lot of
actors who were at the Olivier company at the National - John
Stride, Charles Kay and so on - and you can smell that place
and feel the quality of the work. I would die for a company like
"We miss somebody like Olivier
or Gielgud. They were beacons and they knew what it was like
to be an actor. I want a few heroes, but I look around and they're
not there. But now I really think we are at the beginning of
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