Much Ado About Branagh

New York (cover story), May 24, 1993
by Dinitia Smith


Kenneth Branagh may be a serious Shakespearean actor, the new Sir Laurence Olivier, but he was being treated like a rock star. Branagh was in New York to promote his new movie, Much Ado About Nothing. The movie was a hit--people were lining up around the block to see a sixteenth-century love story. And he was traveling almost the same talk-show circuit as Conan O'Brien, David Letterman's replacement, and Tracey Gold, the anorectic actress who was promoting the TV movie Labor of Love: The Arlette Schwietzer Story. Everywhere Branagh went, fans had discovered his schedule, and as he lighted from his limousine, they pressed against him almost ominously. At one greenroom after another, there would be O'Brien or Gold, waiting to do his or her turn too.

Branagh does not look like the heir to Olivier's artistic legacy. A compact, soft-faced Ulsterman with thin lips and pinkish-brown hair, he does not have Olivier's photogenic face, high cheekbones, or haunting eyes. He is a working-class man who has managed to succeed brilliantly in class-ridden England. At 23, Branagh was the youngest actor ever to play Henry V in the Royal Shakespeare Company. At 28, he wrote his autobiography, Beginning. That same year, he directed and starred in the film Henry V--Olivier was 36 when he made his Henry. Branagh's Henry was the antithesis of Olivier's heroic version, and owed more to Orson Welles's Chimes of Midnight, with its dark vision of medieval warfare, its foundering knights and disemboweled horses. In 1991, Branagh directed and starred in Dead Again, a film noir that invited more comparisons to Welles and to his film Touch of Evil.

Like Welles, who was only 25 when he made Citizen Kane, Branagh, 32, is something of a boy genius, fusing pop melodrama and high art, theater and cinema, with a company of grand actors. "Early on, I read about Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast," Branagh says, "His chutzpa! The fact he went onstage at the age of 16 and announced, 'I am a Broadway star!'"

Only when Branagh opens his mouth is there a clue to his success. In the limousine on the way to Live With Regis and Kathie Lee, he was telling an anecdote about being compared to Olivier. He reached for a quote from Hamlet to illustrate. "'A was a man," Branagh recited, "take him for all in all,/ I shall not look upon his like again." Branagh's actor's tongue caressed the vowels, sunk to points of softness and fluidity; his body suddenly took on a flickering of light and heat and youth. There "it" was.

In the greenroom, Branagh munched on a bagel and watched the show on the monitor as he waited to go on. Patti LaBelle was talking about her new diet: "Armstead said, 'Put down that whole chicken!'" Tracey Gold called her anorexia nervosa "a constant battle"," and with Mother's Day Approaching, Kathie Lee and Regis did a bit from their contest "Mom's Dream Come True."

At last it was Branagh's turn. Quickly, Regis Philbin found an affinity with Branagh: "corpsing"--a form of hysteria in which an actor breaks into uncontrollable fits of laugher at serious moments. It's a problem that has plagued Branagh his whole career. Once, he and the actress Dame Judi Dench were actually kicked off the set during Ibsen's Ghosts because of their helpless giggling. Sometimes Branagh speaks in a crazed female voice when he's working. "O-o-o-o-o-h! Dorothy Discipline needs to sprinkle some of her fairy dust in here!" he told the other actors during a radio version of Hamlet recently, sending them out of control.

Regis, it seems, had the same affliction. "I did it in the middle of a news event in the early sixties," Philbin told Branagh. "There was a train wreck in the Alps. I went on and said, "Well, there was a train wreck--ha-ha-ha-ha!" Branagh said he had had the problem again just the other night while doing Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. "There is a sword fight," Branagh told Philbin, "and the night before I had had a few drinks--it was the Heineken Hamlet, the hung-over Hamlet--and the sword fell apart in my hands, and I started to laugh. You look upstage. Someone said later, 'You were so emotional.' I was crying--but they weren't the right tears."

Branagh went on to tell Philbin about Much Ado, and the love scenes with his wife, Emma Thompson, winner of this year's Oscar for Best Actress. The interview was going well. "This will be an introduction to Shakespeare for lotsa people," Philbin told Branagh. And indeed it will.
From its opening shots, Much Ado is a film filled with sex and joy, a paean to romantic love. As the camera pans across a landscape in Tuscany on an autumn afternoon, we hear the voice of Emma Thompson--warm, throaty, slightly world-weary, and giving new meaning to Shakespeare's words: "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,/Men were deceivers ever, one foot in sea and one one shore, to one thing constant never..." We see Beatrice (Thompson) and a group of friends--the tanned breasts of the women revealed in white dresses. There is the distant rumble of hoofbeats, a cloud of dust and drums; and then, looking for all the world like the Magnificent Seven, come the young men home from battle: Don Pedro (Denzel Washington); his half-brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves); Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard); and finally, Branagh himself, who plays Benedick. Now, through the dust and heat, appear close-ups of horses' hooves and their rippling chests, tanned biceps and pectorals, taut thighs against horseflesh; of cocky, smiling faces full of lust and expectation. The scene is nothing less, says Branagh, than "sex on legs."

Much Ado is a love story on two levels. One is about a pair of would-be lovers, Claudio and Hero (Kate Beckinsale), who are thwarted, nearly tragically, by the schemes of the evil Don John. The other is the story of Beatrice and Benedick, sharp-tongued and sparring, terrified of love, who eventually find their way to each other. Leonard is dewy and soft with youth; Branagh's Benedick is cocky and rough-edged. Denzel Washington, as Pedro, who finally makes love happen, is a figure of wisdom and dignity. Keanu Reeves, as the evil Don John, is the very paradigm of blank-faced hatred. New York's David Denby called the film "rousingly entertaining and touching," and in the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Ravishing entertainment...triumphantly romantic." W.W. Norton has also published a book of Branagh's script, together with an essay on the play and the making of the film.

Next August, Branagh will begin filming Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to be co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Branagh will play Frankenstein, Robert De Niro the creature. Branagh "doesn't want to be just well-known in the papers," says his old friend the English actor John Sessions. "He wants to be well-known in the history books."

Indeed, Branagh's success has brought something of a backlash in Britain, which has always resented success, especially among the young. Some English reporters have taken to calling Branagh and Thompson "the luvvies"--media slang for overblown theater types who call everyone "darling". The Guardian recently printed a remark by Richard Eyre, artistic director of the National Theatre, that any any comparison to Olivier is "wildly off the mark. Branagh lacks that sense of danger, that recklessness, that savagery, and lurking melancholia that, with Olivier, made for something dark. Ken...he's nice. He's decent," said Eyre. And in the United States, Frank Rich called Branagh's recent Hamlet "bland." "What has happened to the creative fires of the gifted Mr. Branagh?" Rich wrote in the Times. Branagh had given "a cautious, theatrical reading of the prince rather than a passionate, risk-taking interpretation of [Hamlet's] neurotic psyche."
But it may this very ordinariness that accounts, at least in part, for Branagh's popular success. Until the turn of the century, Shakespeare was always mass entertainment. In the Mississippi River towns and frontier settlements of America, packed crowds gather to jeer at Shakespeare's clowns, to laugh at his bawdiness and his sly deceptions, and to weep at his tragic heroes and heroines. "There is hardly a pioneer's hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare," Tocqueville wrote of his travels in the United States during the 1850's. When fans didn't like a performance, they threw cabbages and pumpkins at the actors (during a production of Richard III, they tossed a dead goose onstage). In 1849, hundreds rioted in Astor Place in a dispute over the merits of the actors Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready, who were both playing Macbeth, in different productions in the city, and 22 people were killed.

Part of the reason for Shakespeare's popularity was Americans' love of oratory, a relatively good public-school system, and a fascination with the individual on the stage of the world. But by the turn of the century, Americans had become more interested in print than in oratory, and class distinctions had become more rigid, Lawrence Levine writes in his book Highbrow Lowbrow. Suddenly, there was high culture and low culture, and gradually Shakespeare became the province of the elite, of academics, picked over in our time by structuralists and deconstructionists, reinterpreted for political and racial symbolism.

In a way, Branagh's popularity is a rejection of that elitism. "My values are influenced by a completely working-class background until I was in my teens," says Branagh. "This allows people to believe me when I say, 'Listen, honestly, I think you're going to enjoy this Shakespeare play'--more than if I'd gone to Eton or Oxford. I'm essentially somebody who believes in popular entertainment."

Branagh's explanation for his remarkable drive and ambition is resolutely oblique, if not mundane. (Emma Thompson has called Branagh "a walnut, very difficult to pry open." "A very complex man, this Ken," says Keanu Reeves.)

"It's an Irish thing--the gloriousness is in the doing," Branagh claims. "It doesn't matter if you win. I've never been afraid of knocks. I do expect disaster. The surprise is when you get away with it."

"His real fear," says Thompson, "is that people will say, 'We've just found you out--now bugger off!' He's a very practical, earthy man. He doesn't have much of a personal ego. He doesn't need shoring up."

On the surface, at least, there is something of the hardworking Irish Protestant about Branagh. "A driven, puritanical Celt" is how he puts it. Branagh is a tough, stolid man who took pride in playing Hamlet for four and a half hours every night at Stratford while he had laryngitis. Punctual and well-organized, he is a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of man. But for Branagh, who knows almost nothing about high culture--about Mozart, for instance--Shakespeare is a secret mantra. Day and night, Shakespeare's words swirl around inside Branagh's head. In fact, he knows whole stretches of plays by heart. When he is directing, he often works without a text.

There was a time when Branagh, like any good working-class bloke, listened to rock and roll, even Prince. But now it is Shakespeare's words that "provide comfort," he says. "I'm far more likely to think of the line for a play than to put on a record these days. There are just lines that really echo for me. I remember the first time I saw Lear--'When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools....'

"For me, in moments of depression and melancholy, when I come up against stupid humanness, lines like that answer for it and make me laugh. Shakespeare is like some of the Buddhists. After man struggles and suffers in this world, the Buddhists say, 'Be cheerful.' There is a lot of Shakespeare that puts into perspective our being wrapped up into the melodramas of daily life. Shakespeare makes me laugh, and it also stops me from going crazy. I like his cynicism--'To be, or not to be?' What's the fucking point of it, when you think of Bosnia? 'The pangs of despis'd love.' Hamlet-- everyone's gone through it. I mourn the loss of vocabulary. I mourn the loss of poetry," says Branagh. "Find a word!" he cries. "You must find a word! To use more words is not to deny your powers of feeling; it's to express them!"
There were few books in the house in which Branagh grew up, but words mattered very much. He was born the middle child in an Irish Protestant family in Belfast in 1960. His father was a carpenter; his mother worked in a mill. (Branagh has a brother, 36, who was laid off from his job as a computer salesman sixteen months ago. A sister, Joyce, 22, has worked as a production assistant on Branagh's films.)

The Irish, of course, have always had a deep-seated love of language, a seemingly innate sense of rhythm and inflection. As a boy, Branagh would sit and listen to "the crack"--Irish slang for talking, for telling stories about family and friends. "They would have large family get-togethers," Branagh remembers. "It was people making their own entertainment--there was no spare money. They had a few drinks, they would sit by the fireside--'Let me tell you a story.' My granny would tell stories about when she was courting. They had a natural sense of pace--when to pause, little rhetorical flourishes. They were fireside actors. My mom has that as well. Definitely my dad. It was an oral tradition that needed an audience. And a lot of music, a lot of 'Danny Boy', usually when a the name of some dead relative came up, some relative who went to America, and was never seen again." As a little boy listening to these stories, Branagh longed to be part of this "elite" of older relatives, but that would come only later, with performing.

The Branaghs were an extended family, with grandfathers who liked their liquor and women who hauled their husbands home at night from the local pub. At one point, the family had an outdoor toilet. The Branaghs lived in public housing. Later, when they bought their own house, they then had to sell it to make ends meet. "They didn't make too much of a fuss with him," says Thompson of Branagh's parents. "Women often spoil men. You've got to be careful to let them do their own ironing. He wasn't spoiled. They were all treated the same--they were tough wee creatures."

From the beginning, there was the Anglo-Irish sense of "belonging nowhere," as Olivia Manning writes--Branagh uses the phrase in his autobiography. During Branagh's early childhood, Belfast was a relatively peaceful place; but then in 1968 came the Troubles. "[My parents] didn't want to leave Ulster," he says, "but my father's work was taking him away, and we experienced quite a lot of violence while my mother was pregnant with my sister." The Troubles also made Branagh hate organized religion. Churches make him "physically ill", he has written.

In 1970, the family moved to Reading, England, a dull suburb of London. Again Kenneth was out of place, bullied mercilessly. "It was tough on all of them," says Emma Thompson. "Any one with an Irish accent was not welcome in England. Ken being 9, it probably changed his personality, being uprooted from family and friends."

Always acutely sensitive to language, Branagh quickly adapted: He spoke with an Irish accent at home, an English accent at school. "My saving grace was being reasonably good at games [sports]."

Branagh was an indifferent student and seemed destined to work in one of Reading's industries or for the British Rail or the army. He describes his father as being appalled that he wasn't going to drop out of school and work with him. Early on, he was transfixed by movies--Birdman of Alcatraz and Terry Salvalas, in particular, had an effect on him. And he discovered books. "I can remember being 10 or 11, buying my first book from Woolworth's in Reading. I realized books were not just in the library and in school. I spent whatever money I had on books. My parents got my brother on me--they were so worried about how much time I spent on my own and I would that I would not bring friends to the house."

Eventually, Branagh's father started his own small firm, and the Branaghs became members of the middle class. Branagh thought he would be a journalist, and early on there were signs of a kind of a gargantuan self-confidence, when he wrote a letter to an editor suggesting that he be allowed to review books. (The letter writing was to become a habit.) Then one day he was cast in a school production of Oh! What a Lovely War and discovered he wanted to be an actor. He read everything he could on acting, sending away for magazines and poring over copies of Theatre World, Encore, and Plays and Players. To this day, Branagh has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the craft, of past productions of Shakespeare, casts and directors and producers.
At 15, he pitched a tent at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford so he could see Shakespere. In 1978, he won an audition to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, almost hallowed ground in England. The audition seemed traumatic. "The execution is tremendously accomplished, but the overall effect is soulless," he was told by the director and writer Hugh Crutwell, the principal of RADA. Nonetheless, he was accepted. John Sessions remembers that "he was a country boy. He wore ordinary clothes, not very fashionable jeans, an out-of-date haircut. But he had a way of looking at people as if he were looking down the barrel of a gun."

At RADA, "a door had been opened," Branagh writes in Beginning. "You could submerge your personality fully into someone else's words. ...You could become an instrument, a vessel through which something else could channel and expand itself, take on color and meaning..." He divested himself once and for all of his regional accent and learned "received pronunciation", as it was called at RADA. The result is a kind of suburban accent that lacks Olivier's crystalline clarity.
Early on, Branagh demonstrated an ability to cultivate the right people. When he was playing Chebutykin, the doctor in Chekhov's Three Sisters, he wrote to Olivier to get his advice and got a letter back. Another letter won him an interview with Derek Jacobi, a figure who would later be crucial to his success.

Branagh got his break at the age of 31 when, after England's strict Equity rules were bent, he landed a part on the West End in Another Country. At 23, he was chosen by Adrian Noble, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to play Henry V at Stratford. Again, the letter writing came into play. What was it like to be a royal, Branagh wondered, to live in spiritual isolation, to bear the burdens of power? There was only one way to find out--go to the heir apparent himself. Again Branagh wrote a letter--this time to Prince Charles. After being vetted by Buckingham Palace, Branagh found himself in a car bound for Kensington Palace and an interview with the future king.

Like his distant ancestor, Charles himself had been the victim of a million small betrayals, or so Branagh wrote in his autobiography. "I felt an instant rapport," Branagh writes. "I had never encountered such an extraordinary and genuine humility." "Yes," said the prince, according to Branagh, "there was a tremendous pressure and temptation to be at times either very silly or very violent." "I had the impression that he shared with Shakespeare's Henry a desire to strike a delicate balance between responsibility and compassion. He was eloquent about Shakespeare's portrayal of regal isolation," Branagh says today, "the nature of regal responsibility. He [Charles] is very emotional. He takes it very seriously."

But Branagh started squabbling with Trevor Nunn, an artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the RSC administration over money and a certain "smugness." The RSC has become a big machine, and many young actors were chafing under its influence. Branagh decided to form his own acting company, in which the actor would be central and Shakespeare accessible. "Shakespeare is an actor's medium," Branagh says. "He was an actor."

There was also a conservative bent to Branagh's move. During the postwar period in England, Shakespeare had been reinterpreted and played in modern dress. The plays have been produced as Freudian dreams or seen as metaphors--Romeo and Juliet, says, as a metaphor for the Arab-Israeli conflict rather than "a domestic dispute," says Branagh. "These plays are not texts," he says. "They're scripts." Branagh wanted to bring Shakespeare back to its roots, with an emphasis on diction and language, and on story. He wanted to do a Shakespeare "which did not assume people were familiar with the play, an uncluttered Shakespeare."

Branagh had begun to conceive the idea of the Renaissance Theatre Company as one that would bring Shakespeare back to its roots. Prince Charles lent his prestige and support to the venture by becoming a patron of the company. At the press conference announcing the new theater group, Branagh was able to get Derek Jacobi and Dame Judi Dench to appear alongside him. At Renaissance's first Shakespeare production, Twelfth Night, Prince Charles was in the audience. The reviews were raves.
Branagh published his autobiography, he says, because he needed the money to buy office space for the Renaissance Theatre. It is a good-humored book, surprisingly free of bravado, seemingly honest about his talents, affectionate about his family, and yet a stunning display of hubris. Already Branagh seemed to see himself as a kind of character in an epic. Some in the British press reacted negatively--the book, a long catalog of his successes, seemed curiously complete. As his epigraph, he chose a quote from As You Like It. "I will tell you the beginning," he wrote, "and if it please your ladyships you shall see the end, for the best is yet to do."

In 1988, Branagh filmed Henry V, braving comparison with the Olivier production, one of the best films of any Shakespearean drama ever. Branagh cast England's theatrical royalty--Jacobi, Dench, Paul Scofield. The crew teased him. "You can't direct for toffee, you big pouf!" the veteran actor Brian Blessed joked at one point.

But the result was a powerful, back-to-basics Henry, a post-Falklands Henry. It is a bleak, mud-ridden vision of a predatory England, of blood lost and anguished power, and Branagh won two Academy Award nominations, for acting and directing. Prince Charles was said to have viewed the rushes and cried openly, especially during the scene before the Battle of Agincourt when Branagh says Henry's lines:

Upon the King! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives, and our sins lay on the King!
We must bear all. O hard condition....

At the end of the film, Henry kisses Katherine (Emma Thompson), his bride-to-be, the daughter of the French king: "You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate," Henry tells her. "There is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French council." In fact, unbeknownst to the British public, Thompson and Branagh had fallen in love, and after the film's release they were married in a wedding at Cliveden, the old Astor estate and the scene of the Profumo scandal in the sixties. The wedding reportedly cost $50,000. There were fireworks. "It was an English version of Much Ado About Nothing," says Judi Dench.

Branagh had met Thompson while auditioning for the BBC series Fortunes of War. Unlike Branagh, Thompson came from a privileged background. She had gone to Cambridge and been a member of Cambridge Footlights, which produced John Cleese and Peter Cook. But, like Branagh, Thompson was not conventionally attractive--her jaw is too long, her mouth a little equine. Thompson arrived at the audition with "a terrible hangover," she says. Branagh seemed "energetic and brilliant, a very young man--with bouncy hair," she says. (Branagh is two years younger.) "She was very gregarious, outgoing," Branagh remembers. "She said, 'Oh, you're not what I expected at all!' I thought it best not to ask what she had expected, and I never have. She was funny. We shared a sense of humor."

Initially, Branagh was suspicious of her background. "We were pretty cautious," he told an interviewer recently. "We were not a thousand miles away from the characters of Beatrice and Benedick. We had both experienced long-term relationships before. You sort of dance around a bit." Indeed, Thompson had been quoted in US magazine as having said, "Marriage is an extremely dangerous step--don't do it until you have shagged everything with a pulse."

Since their marriage, Branagh and Thompson have worked steadily together. In 1991, they made Dead Again, a convoluted thriller with Derek Jacobi, Andy Garcia and Robin Williams. Some reviewers found the film clunky, cinematically unsophisticated. Nonetheless, it was a commercial success. The next year, Branagh and Thompson appeared in Peter's Friends, a kind of English Big Chill, about a group of Cambridge friends who gather at the country home of one of them for a reunion.

Branagh's trip to New York to promote Much Ado is his first extended separation from his wife in a long time. Branagh calls Thompson, who has pulled a muscle in her back, three to four times a day. "She now goes to bed with the Oscar, and I sleep in the spare room," he tells an interviewer. "I have to call her 'madam.'" Today, Branagh and Thompson live in a semi-detached house in north London on a leafy street, across from Thompson's mother, Phyllida Law, who plays Ursula in Much Ado, and down the road from her sister. When asked about children, Branagh says, "It would be lovely; we don't assume it's necessarily going to happen." "Conception at the moment would be tricky. Ken is so tired at the moment, doing so many jobs," Thompson told US.
Branagh began thinking about Much Ado four years ago, when he was playing Benedick in a production directed by Judi Dench. "I was listening to Balthasar [in the original play, the opening lines of the movie are actually sung in the middle by another character], and I began to imagine a group of men coming over the brow of a hill on horseback."

To Branagh, the film is about "the triumph and healing power of love. I wanted to somehow imply a mood of reconciliation, tolerance, and forgiveness."

Branagh himself cut, transposed, and reshaped Shakespeare's words, making some scenes more believable and hastening the pace of the drama. From the beginning, he decided to cast American actors alongside the British ones. "Shakespeare doesn't belong to the monotonal, fruity-voiced British experience. Shakespeare's language was pronounced much more like an American or Ulster voice, with hard 'r's. Part of the reason for my choice of American actors was a deliberate intention to make the language feel and sound different and unstuffy, to remove this clutter from Shakespeare, the received notions of how it should sound and look. And I always liked the ballsiness of American film acting, the full-blooded abandon. This play just seemed to require it."

Branagh had seen Michael Keaton in Night Shift in 1982 and thought, "God, that's a funny man." He asked Keaton to play Dogberry, the lunatic constable who brings news of Don John's conspiracy against the two young lovers, Hero and Claudio. Dogberry rides around hilariously on an imaginary horse--a bit of stage business invented by Keaton. "You think you're watching a romantic comedy," says Branagh. "And then you say, 'What the fuck is this?'" Keaton had never done Shakespeare before. He was "terrified" of trying, he says. The other actors "were nervous about my coming there, because I was a big American movie star," Keaton says. "I thought they would be aloof." It turned out to be "the best job I ever had."

Keanu Reeves flew to London to try to get the job. Branagh was "taken with Reeves's enthusiasm. I thought, There's a guy who's bursting to do it." "He's a stickler for clarity, for diction," says Reeves. "He wanted me to chew the words, to go higher, with more fire."

The original play takes place in Messina, Sicily, but Branagh wanted a more idyllic, verdant setting for the romance, and chose instead the Villa Vignamaggio, in Greve, Tuscany, once the home of Lisa Gheradini Giocondo, the Mona Lisa. Some of the actors shared villas, creating a family feeling, a sense of community. "It was like Les Enfants du Paradis," Michael Carne's film about a French theater troupe, says Keanu Reeves.

Much Ado About Nothing was difficult to film, partly because of the intense heat and the many night scenes. "You get to the moment when you think you're going to crack," says Branagh. "I sent everybody away and just sat it in the garden--'Nobody ask me for anything or need anything.' Denzel came up and gave me a big hug and said, 'What's up, boss?' He said, 'Listen. You're allowed to have these feelings. If you send all the crew away, people won't take you for granted.' He's good company, Denzel. I got a lot of time for him."
Branagh believes that there's a new interest in words and language, a revival of interest in poetry. "Different kinds of muscles are being flexed. There's a rejection of the eighties' 'here and now.' Poetry acts on the soul. There is an interest in those things that provide a mysterious reactiveness, that make the hairs on the back of the head stand up. It is therapeutic to have more words at one's disposal--the more words one has, the more one begins to understand.

"Much Ado means that for a whole generation of kids, some grateful teacher, with a gasp of relief, will be able to say, 'Here are girls with cleavages and boys with tight trousers, class. You will now shut up for an hour and a half and pay attention!'"

Branagh and I were saying good-bye at his hotel on the East Side. "I love the performance skill," he was saying. "This chutzpa in front of an audience, this performance courage. In another life, I'd like to be a stand-up comedian." I was taken aback, and Branagh could see it. But then, of course, his statement made sense--the love of performing, of being a member of that elite of storytellers sitting by the fire, using language as a weapon and means of seduction.

All along during the trip to New York, in interview after interview, it was as if others were defining him, as if he were being caught up in a web of distortion. To himself, Branagh seems almost "boringly normal." But now he had a question to ask me. "Tell me," Branagh asked, "just what is it that people expect?"

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