Fresh Air Interview Transcript
National Public Radio, December
Terry Gross, host
GROSS: Today we have an interview
with Kenneth Branagh about his film adaptation of "Hamlet,"
in which he stars as the prince of Denmark.
Branagh has also directed
film adaptations of Shakespeare's "Henry V" and "Much
Ado About Nothing" and he co-starred in the recent film
of "Othello." His Hamlet features English and American
actors: Derek Jacoby as Claudius; Julie Christie as Gertrude:
Kate Winslett, Ophelia; Robin Williams, Osrick; Jack Lemmon,
Marcellus; and Billy Crystal is a gravedigger.
For listeners who've never
read Hamlet or seen a production or who have just forgotten,
tell us the basic story and in just, you know, plot terms.
BRANAGH: Sure. I'm not sure,
you know, that lots of people do know the story of Hamlet, to
be perfectly honest. And I certainly approached this film with
that in mind. Hamlet is the heir to the Danish throne. His father
has died -- poisoned by a serpent in his garden. This happens
one month previous to the beginning of the play.
And we meet Hamlet when his mother
Gertrude has remarried his uncle. This is one month after his
father's death. Hamlet is unhappy about this -- bitterly angry
that she should have married so quickly.
He is visited by the ghost of
his dead father, who tells him that he was murdered and that
he was murdered by his uncle and that Hamlet must revenge him.
So Hamlet's problem for the rest
of the play is that he, the heir to the throne, has to kill the
king -- the reigning monarch -- in order to avenge his father's
death. And all the rest of what occurs in the play springs from
that one central dilemma for Hamlet.
GROSS: Do you feel like you've
brought a new overall vision to this production of Hamlet --
a different interpretation than you've seen in the past?
BRANAGH: I think the way we have
produced our vision I hope is different and original. With things
like Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular, I think it's hard
to claim any originality. I feel as though everything' s probably
been done by minds much greater than mine, but we at least in
choosing, for instance, to set it in a kind of impressionistic
19th century, in a much more colorful way than is perhaps usually
done. Hamlet seems to be perceived as a very dark and Gothic
play where all the characters are sort of predisposed to be manic-depressives.
GROSS: That's right.
BRANAGH: I don't believe that
from reading the text. Nothing, nothing about what's said in
the play gives the idea that under different circumstances, I
-- not at a time when the king is just killed -- would they be
anything other than very alive and curious and bright. I think
that central sort of change of thought is the, if you like, originality
of our view.
GROSS: This Hamlet is -- your
production is four hours long and you use the whole text and
even, I think, a couple of additions. Whereas when Olivier did
his movie version of Hamlet, he cut out a lot of the minor characters
-- a lot of the subplots, and shortened it to about half the
GROSS: With your production,
why did you want to keep everything in, knowing how difficult
it is to sell a movie that's four hours long?
BRANAGH: My experience of playing
this play in the theater in several productions, including one
that was at the full-length, was that the story was easier to
follow. Even if people haven't seen or even heard of Hamlet,
there is a misty kind of memory of a fellow in black, you know,
and holding a skull and being a bit depressed.
GROSS: That's right.
BRANAGH: So they've got some
idea of what to expect, and yet they get intimidated by it and
they think it will be somebody being very morose and intellectual.
Of course, he's a very bright and intelligent man, but there's
a story there that is very thrilling.
It has basic elements that Shakespeare's
contemporaries used in this genre: the revenge melodrama. If
there was a film equivalent, maybe it would be the thriller.
As a form, Shakespeare uses madness,
revenge, suicide, the visitation of a ghost, the possibility
of incest -- these are all kind of crowd- pleasing, page-turning
-- rather, you know, low elements, he might say.
But alongside that, there's a
story of many different things: a family crisis; story about
miscommunication in a family with which we can all identify,
I think. It would be tough if your mother remarried your uncle
inside a month of your father's death. That's a tough issue.
But they also are a royal family,
so what they do -- the impact of their personal problems is felt
across a whole nation. And so you have the end of a dynasty,
if you like.
You see a whole world in transition,
and you see the very personal problems of people who are in situations
that we might find ourselves in, but they have the extra dramatic
quality of being watched -- they' re under the microscope.
They're people in positions of
power whose every move is scrutinized, rather like our own political
leaders today; our own royal families today.
And I think that that mixture
of something very epic, dealing with the fate of nations and
war and politics and something very, very familiar and intimate
and domestic and personal is what makes the long version not
only easier to follow, but more gripping.
GROSS: We're all taught in
English classes that Shakespearian tragedies are about a great
person of heroic proportion who is brought down by a fatal flaw.
And in Hamlet, well the fatal flaw some people say "oh,
it's his depression; it's his indecision." I had a feeling
it was like really self-absorption. You know, watching your Hamlet,
I'm thinking: well, Hamlet is so -- just oblivious to how he's
destroying Ophelia and how he's treating her; and the way he's
tearing apart his mother; and how he's dealing with her remarriage.
And he's even oblivious to what this is doing to his kingdom.
BRANAGH: Well, I think that that,
for me, makes him very, very recognizable and human.
GROSS: Very contemporary.
BRANAGH: Very contemporary --
self-absorption of individuals this end of the century is pretty
astonishing, especially post-Freud and post-all the sort of psychoanalysis
that we have as part of our sort of daily bread and butter. It's
on television; it's in self-help books in libraries. We're all
somehow trying to find ourselves.
Now Hamlet is certainly doing
that. In doing the long version, of course, what you get are
moments of revelation, including I think a crucial one, which
is at the end of the first half of our picture, where Hamlet
goes out onto the plain in Norway and sees Fortenbras -- also
a young man, also a prince, also just lost his father, also got
his uncle on the throne -- who, as distinct from Hamlet, is happy
to send off a group of 20,000 men to fight for a piece of Poland
which is simply a sort of political expedient, because he thinks
Hamlet can't do that, and it
puts his problems in perspective.
He has to go back. He has to
face his own problems. At that point, of course, Hamlet has become
a murderer -- the self-absorption you so rightly mention has
also produced someone who ends up killing the prime minister
-- a fact which has been hushed up, but makes Denmark a hotbed
of scandal, intrigue, and revolution.
Laertes comes back -- the dead
father's son to avenge him. And I think in the long version,
you get a sense of Hamlet traveling to a point in his life where
perhaps he is seeing a little more outwardly, instead of inwardly.
He is learning to forgive a little; be a little more tolerant.
For me, I suppose that's what
the story's about -- that there's a point at which it's quite
healthy to be looking at yourself; and there' s a point at which
it perhaps tips over into something unhelpful.
GROSS: I wonder if you like
the character of Hamlet? If you think of him as someone you want
to -- that you would identify with and admire? Or somebody who
is so flawed in some ways that you -- you have real problems
BRANAGH: I do like him. I like
him because he is flawed. I like him because of his fallibility.
I think that his heroism, if you like, springs from his human
frailty. This is a man who is often very cruel, as we mentioned
before. He's brutal in his treatment of both Ophelia and Gertrude
-- people that he loves.
But my experience of life, such
as it is, is that the people are most cruel to those that they
love. One of the reasons, I suppose, in the tragic, inevitable
scheme of things that Hamlet has to die, is that we know that
he has done some things which just, you know, in the grand scheme
of things, can't be forgiven.
But he has essentially tried
to face up to his problems, I believe -- has tried to work them
out. But it's his very complexity -- his contrariness; his contradictory
qualities; a man who can appreciate so keenly his friendship
with Horatio and the importance of friendship; who can be so
loving with Ophelia, on one hand, and then so terrifyingly aggressive
with her -- this is somebody I think who is remarkably human
and yeah, I think he's somebody I'd like to spend time with.
GROSS: One of the many famous
lines that comes from Hamlet is about being cruel to be kind.
And he says this to -- I forget whether it' s Gertrude or Ophelia...
BRANAGH: He says it to Gertrude.
GROSS: ... and you know, I
just -- this is the first time I found myself wondering: is Hamlet
so kind of gifted with words that he can rationalize whatever
BRANAGH: He, to some extent,
may well be a prisoner of a very strong intellect. And when he
says that to her, he has just murdered the prime minister, who's
lying in a pool of blood in her bedroom.
Their lives have changed forever
from that point. The prime minister' s been killed. The world
GROSS: This is Polonius.
GROSS: And it's an amazing
scene, really -- yeah, he's just -- he sees this figure lurking
behind the curtain and kills him, thinking it's probably going
to be the king...
GROSS: ... but it's actually
Polonius, who's got his own problems, but Hamlet wouldn't have
wanted to kill him. And he's lying there in this big pool of
blood, and Gertrude and Hamlet are just, like, talking and talking
and trying to work things out -- just kind of oblivious to the
fact that there's this bleeding corpse a couple of feet away.
BRANAGH: Well, they're having
the conversation, if you like, that they should have had at the
beginning of the film when Hamlet really wants to say to her:
"how could you be so insensitive as to marry my uncle within
one month of my father's death?" So they need to say things
that go above and beyond their sensitivity to the fact that they've
just killed somebody.
GROSS: My guest is Kenneth
Branagh. We'll talk more after a break.
There are so many lines from
Hamlet that are famous. Run through some of them.
BRANAGH: Well, we have the --
probably the most famous line in English literature: "To
be or not to be? That is the question." You mentioned "cruel
to be kind," "neither a borrower nor a lender be,"
"to thine own self be true." You've got "alas,
poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio." I always used to think
it was "alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well." GROSS:
BRANAGH: Yeah, and that was the
kind of thing that I picked up as a kid off the television, 'cause
there were all these cliches about Hamlet. So it's full of them.
It's absolutely full of them, as Shakespeare is, but Hamlet in
particular is full of quotes that have absolutely worked their
way into the language.
GROSS: Give me a sense of
one of these quotes that is kind of really worn out when it's
used as, like, common wisdom or a great quote out of context
-- but really works in context and has a genuinely interesting
meaning in context.
BRANAGH: Well, I'll tell you
a funny example of it, which is to refer to a line that you mentioned
earlier on: "I must be cruel" -- the line in the text
is -- "I must be cruel only to be kind" which colloquially
becomes "you have to be cruel to be kind" or whatever.
I had boils on my knee when I
was about seven or eight years old, and my mother used to squeeze
them with hot and could poultice. She claimed there was no other
way to deal with this. I've since taken her to task about it.
But that was the line she used
to come out with, you know -- "I must be cruel to be kind"
as she squeezed these boils and I was seven or eight years in
Now that line, you know, in context,
is, I have to say, nothing to do with squeezing boils and is
-- does express some of what you rightly mention is this -- a
certain kind of self-righteousness that Hamlet has from time
to time, which is not a very appealing quality, but which is
also part of being a human being in a very traumatic situation.
GROSS: Tell me about approaching
the "to be or not to be" soliloquy -- the most famous
of all soliloquies, perhaps leading with the most famous line
in all of theater. What did you think about in order to make
that sound meaningful, and not like "oh yeah, those lines
-- I know those lines."
BRANAGH: Well, I 'spose there
were lots of things to consider.
I had played it in the theater
many times, and found it difficult.
You come on sometimes -- I'd
seen actors do it, actually -- rushing on, say the line very
quickly, hoping to get this famous passage out of the way. The
audience feels rather cheated then, and I used to come on --
on one production and say it slowly.
But I found that the entire audience
whispered it under their breath with me, and had I stopped in
the middle of the line, it would have been completed by the rest
of the audience. I felt like I should have a child with a bouncing
ball behind me.
So I think you've got to -- in
film at least, you were -- you didn' t have an enormous audience
there. And in fact, in the way we shot it, which was with Hamlet
looking into a mirror, it meant that in this vast state hall
set full of mirrored doors, there was only myself and the camera
operator. So that at least gave me a feeling of isolation. We
couldn't have anybody else in the room because they would have
You have to try and say it as
truthfully and honestly as possible. One of the things about
that speech that I think sometimes gets forgotten is that Hamlet
has been sent for prior to this.
Sometimes, the actor's so concerned
with the famousness of the speech that he comes on with that
in mind, and in fact, it's quite useful as an actor to come on
with some sense of "hello, where is everybody?" --
of possibly being watched. So that that quality -- the slight
paranoid thing -- runs under the speech as well.
You try and say this truthfully
as possible, and as if the lines had never been said before.
For me, having done it a lot before, I'd got a lot of my neuroses
out of the way and I also felt: do it in a mirror with Hamlet
literally talking to himself and with the suspicion, which we
as the film audience know to be true, that Claudius is actually
watching him on the other side of what we find out is a two-way
mirror -- was something that was very helpful to me.
Our atmosphere in the court was
one of suspicion and spying and intrigue -- hidden doors and
two-way mirrors -- and there was something that put a little
sort of nervous thing under the speech, which was very helpful.
GROSS: Can I ask you to choose
one of the soliloquies from Hamlet, and just talk about how you
approached it in your line readings - - where to breathe; what
words to accent; what words to just -- what to really, kind of,
bring more to the surface; what to just kind of play down and
make more subtle; how to make it sound conversational as opposed
to a speech?
BRANAGH: Well, each one's different,
and in each case before you approach the speech, you look at
what's available to you in terms of printed editions of the text
and whether you believe there's a consistency to the way the
speech appears to have been punctuated.
Often, that's not the case. Some
editions will give you a comma at the end of the line, instead
of a full stop; or give you a full stop in the middle of the
line. There'll be a different reading.
Some people are very scrupulous
about Shakespeare's punctuation, and some people like to be very
cavalier with it. Derek Jacoby and I often disagree about this.
Derek's a great -- feels that because nobody was there to check
that you can throw it all away.
And one of the things that he
loves to do is to make sure that each line is said differently,
particularly -- I mean, for instance, specific example. When
Hamlet sees Ophelia at the end of the "to be or not to be"
soliloquy, he says: "Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins
remembered" -- "orisons" being prayers or prayer
Now, you can say the line straight:
"Nymphet, in thy orisons in your prayers be all my sins
remembered." Or you can say: "Nymph, in thy orisons?
Your -- at your prayers are all my sins remembered?" Those
kind of decisions you make, line by line, on a soliloquy.
And you often look for words
that repeat themselves. I sometimes do an exercise of looking
down the end-line -- the end word of each speech, each line,
and seeing whether there is a recurring pattern there.
Also, you have to work out whether
there's a single idea or a single metaphor sustained all the
way through the speech, so that, you know, there are endless
metaphors sometimes occupying 10, 15 lines to do with whatever
-- weather; the sea; mountains; intricate metaphors about insects
and images to do with how that affects politics and things.
And so you kind of work it like
that. And then, one of the things I tried to do with this, in
each case, was to do all of that kind of work and especially
if it's rhyming -- you have to be aware of that, and yet touch
It's very important to be aware
of literally the sound of it.
Sometimes when you are stuck
interpretively, you need to go through it and just sort of, as
it were, taste the consonants. There are a lot of middle consonants
and end consonants.
But as soon as you hit a little
more sharply, to give definition to it, provides a kind of music
that gives you an intuitive sense of what the meaning is.
So I think you throw all of that
at it, and then soliloquy to soliloquy you try and say it as
truthfully as possible in that moment, forgetting it -- forgetting
all of that technical preparatory work, so that the final obligation
to the audience is to be as real as possible in that moment;
with all technical preparation forgotten about -- utterly in
service to the idea of being truthful.
GROSS: What do you do -- like,
the line that you mentioned before -- that Hamlet says to Ophelia
about "in my orisons." Is that the word, "orisons?"
BRANAGH: "In the orisons"
GROSS: I mean, I wouldn't
have know that means "prayer."
GROSS: So, don't you feel
like cuing the audience, like: "OK ladies and gentlemen,
GROSS: "... means prayer."
Or just having something -- there's so many words in Shakespeare
that a contemporary audience -- an audience who wasn't filled
with scholars -- wouldn't know. So how do you deal with those
words so that there's some hint of what they mean, without...
BRANAGH: Well, in that instance,
I think it...
GROSS: ... defining them.
BRANAGH: ... in that instance,
you can be relatively simple in having her have a prayer book
that she's looking at...
BRANAGH: ... and have Hamlet
in the way "in thy orisons" -- either with some sort
of gesture towards it, so that the audience will pick up or intuit,
if you like, a great deal of what is going on, even though they
may not necessarily get the meaning of every line.
Like, there's a line in the full
version -- the closet scenes -- you know, that scene where he
says: "for in the fatness of these percy times" --
we used to have a lot of fun, actually, during -- talking --
because that suddenly appeared to us like a newspaper -- the
Percy Times -- was a newspaper that ran through Elsinore -- but
"in the fatness of these percy times" -- "percy"
if I recall right, you know, meaning sort of overgrown, you know,
ranc -- rancorous times, these corrupt times.
Well, you know, in the context
of that scene, you just color the line with your own sense of
what "in the fatness of these percy times." You know,
the audience is going to get some sense that Hamlet's using the
word "percy" with some ironic coloring, and in the
context of other lines, they will understand.
I think it gives, if nothing
else, it literally gives poetry. It gives music. It gives sounds
-- the sound of the word sometimes having an impact on the ear
and on the senses generally -- that wins an audience over and
that is a sort of treat in itself, 'cause some of the sounds
are very odd and very delicious.
And even though we may not literally
understand it, I think that's fair enough. There's a great deal
in the play that, I think, because it's a classic and has withstood
400 years of people throwing themselves at it, that resists definitiveness.
There is mystery in there, and that mystery -- Hamlet says to
Guildenstern "you would pluck out the heart of my mystery."
No will pluck out the heart of Hamlet, the play's mystery.
But on the way, you can -- you
can, if you serve, as we do in this one, the whole text up, I
think that intuitively, the audience respond to it in a very
mysterious way. And I think that that's a magical, magical thing
which we underestimate because we so want to nail everything.
What kind of Hamlet is it? What's his motivation?
What does it mean? Can I have
it in three sentences please.
It's not possible, and that's
GROSS: Kenneth Branagh. We'll
hear more from him in the second half of our show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry
Gross, back with more of our interview with Kenneth Branagh recorded
in January after the release of his film adaptation of Hamlet.
Now, your previous film was called "A Midwinter's Tale"
and it was about a kind of rag-tag group of actors who were totally
broke; they' re all utterly eccentric; and they're doing a production
of Hamlet in this closed-down church in a rural area. This is
I want to just play a bit
of a very funny audition scene in which the director of the play
is auditioning a very pretentious actor who wants to star in
the role of Hamlet. Here it is.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "A MIDWINTER'S
TALE") FIRST UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Hamlet isn't just Hamlet.
Oh, no, no.
Oh, no. No, Hamlet is me. Hamlet
is Bosnia. Hamlet is this desk.
Hamlet is the air. Hamlet is
my grandmother. Hamlet is everything you've ever thought about
-- sex; about geology.
SECOND UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Geology.
FIRST ACTOR: In a very loose
sense, of course.
SECOND ACTOR: Can you fence?
FIRST ACTOR: I adore to fence.
I live to fence. In a sense, I fence to live.
GROSS: Kenneth Branagh, was
that ever you? Were you ever -- doing it that much, about the
meaning of Hamlet?
BRANAGH: I've been on either
end of that kind of conversation, where people are -- sort of
intellectualize their response to the play or -- I remember there
was one occasion where I worked with a director who was talking
to the court, who was standing around while in a production of
Claudius and Gertrude were walking
in, and he said: "and what I'd like you to do, in a strange
way, what I'd like you to do is to absent yourself from yourself
and give yourself to nationhood." So -- a lot of heads turned
around, and suddenly somebody piped up and said: "so you'd
like us to bow." "Yes, bow. That's good." "Good."
GROSS [laughing]: I love this
actor in it because he's so much trying to prove that he owns
Hamlet, and I think everybody wants to -- it's such a kind of
universal play. It's been done so many times over so many centuries,
and everybody wants to prove, like, it's mine. I understand it
better than you do.
BRANAGH: Yeah. And there are
lots of things in it -- that you can pick up on words, characters.
People can seize on things -- this particular actor, and it goes
on to talk about his extraordinary research for the role of Hamlet.
He said: "well, you know, normally I would have spent about
nine months in Denmark to get this right -- get the feel of it;
get the smell of it." And they say: "well, what did
you do this time?" He said: "Well, I got this book
on the Eiffel Tower, because Laertes visits Paris, and you know,
I just wanted an image in my head." Actors get very funny
about this kind of stuff.
GROSS: So what was it like
for you the first time you did Hamlet? How old were you?
BRANAGH: I was 20 years old and
I was at drama school. I was at the Royal Academy of Dramatic
Art, and -- in London -- and it was a panic-making experience
'cause it was very alarming to see these great sort of set-pieces
be so close to each other. Now, that was a very cut version --
about two, two hours 20 minutes. But a lot of the sort of big
famous bits still in.
And partly because of the cuts,
but mostly 'cause this is the way it goes, they are very close
to each other. You suddenly do the " rogue and peasant slave"
soliloquy, which is an extraordinary piece of writing in which
the actor, I suppose, is required to strike 12.
You've got to give it all you've
got, 'cause there he is trying to work himself up into a state
where he can revenge his father. He' s trying to be like the
actor you've just seen.
You finish that. You come off,
and you come on immediately to "to be or not to be"
-- a meditative, reflective speech which, in a sense, could be
taken out of the play. It doesn't advance the plot at all. Again,
naked, but in a very different way, 'cause you can't do all that
ranting and raving. And it's the most famous speech ever written,
And I found that all these things
coming so close together meant that for me, the experience of
the part, to begin with, was a sort of obstacle course.
I used to come off in the wings
and ask to know where I was going to go back on again, because
just getting through it, remembering it, and as Noel Coward would
say "not bumping into the furniture" was quite a lot
to take on board the first time.
GROSS: I imagine remembering
it is pretty darn hard.
BRANAGH: Mm. It is, and of course,
you don't always remember it in the right order. One of the other
things Midwinter's Tale talked about were some of the famous,
you know, paraphrases.
When Gertrude first talks to
Hamlet in the court scene, she says: "Hamlet, cast off thy
nighted color." And I was in a production with someone that
Gertrude said: "Hamlet, cast off thy colored nighty."
Then there are a whole series of characters in the play -- secret
characters. There's a dog in the closet scene, or at least so
actors would have you believe, because the ghost says to Hamlet:
"but look, amazement on thy mother sits," so this little
dog called "Amazement, " we believed, populates the
Then there are classic characters
-- the Hamlet charwoman, Elsie Nore. Then there's...
GROSS: That's the name of
BRANAGH: Exactly. Somebody says:
"they came with martial stork, across the plains."
So "Marshall Stork" is another general who's in there.
And also Horatio's girl friend, Felicity. At the end, Hamlet
says to Horatio before, as Horatio's attempting to commit suicide,
he says: "Absent thee from Felicity Awhile." Her second
name is "Awhile." "Felicity Awhile" -- Horatio's
girl friend. The hidden meaning in Hamlet.
GROSS: Well, the first time
you did Hamlet, were there any hidden meanings that you saw that
you thought: "well, I am going to bring this to the surface
and I will show what Hamlet is really about."
BRANAGH: Well, one of the things
I did that I lost over various productions of playing it, was
a sense that he absolutely goes mad, live, in front of the audience,
in the scene with Ophelia -- in the nunnery scene. He meets this
woman who has been banned from seeing him. The pair of them,
it seems, love each other very much, but he feels that she' s
been unjust. She feels he's behaved irrationally.
Anyway, in the midst of this
confused, almost adolescent, you know -- "will you be my
boy friend?" "no." "will you be my girl friend?"
"no" -- sane. He suddenly says: "where is your
father?" And she says: "at home, my lord," which
is a lie because she knows that her father is watching.
And I chose that moment in that
very first production to do a great kind of spastic convulsion
of heartbreak and madness, with eyes rolling and all sorts of
nonsense that then left me pretty much nowhere to go for the
rest of the play because I was mad in the middle of the third
act, so I had two acts of being completely potty.
So I dropped that after a while.
I still think it's quite a heartbreak. I just don't think that
he goes as erratically mad as I did back in whenever it was --
GROSS: What did you director
BRANAGH: Oh, director was a very
cool guy. He said: "yeah, just go with it, man, you know.
Just kind of see where it takes you, man, you know. It's quite
interesting -- interesting choice."
GROSS: Kenneth Branagh, a
pleasure to have you here. Thank you so much.
BRANAGH: Thank you. My pleasure.
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