Extreme Hamlet, Branagh Style
Ottawa Citizen, January 3 1997
by Judy Gerstel
"Human beings in positions
of great responsibility and power." That's one of the things
about Hamlet that's of "keen interest" to Kenneth Branagh.
And well it should be.
Branagh's position of power has
allowed him to perpetrate the longest Shakespeare film in history,
a four-hour Hamlet with text and scenes that would surprise,
well, Shakespeare. To cut or not to cut: That wasn't even in
He cast and designed the $ 18-million
upcoming movie according to his personal whim, setting it in
the 19th century, using non-traditional casting combining black
actors, Hollywood stars, and English unknowns.
He cast himself as the young
prince, daringly directing himself in one of the culture's greatest
There's no doubt Kenneth Branagh
is in a position of power.
But is he a human being?
Megalomaniac has been mentioned.
Superhuman, at least.
"At this point in your life,"
he is asked, "what's the most difficult thing?"
"I don't know," he
replies."You've completely stumped me."
Ever affable, he searches for
something that's difficult for him. "The travelling kills
me," he admits happily. "The bicoastal flights on this
continent I find completely exhausting."
Slim and fit, the 36-year-old
actor/director/producer sports a butter-soft, made-in-Italy Gucci
black leather jacket worn with jeans and a fleecy zippered top
with a Hamlet logo.
"We're really banging the
drum for this one," he says about his indefatigable promotion
of the film (he did six talk-show interviews in New York), acknowledging
that a four-hour Shakespeare film needs all the help it can get.
With advance bookings already
on sale, the film is being marketed as an event. But movie-goers
familiar with Branagh's work, including the juicy Much Ado About
Nothing, know his priority is entertainment. He blatantly woos
the box office with mass-appeal adaptations while illuminating
the text with natural delivery and sensuousness.
He has said about Much Ado, "It
was important to me that it sounded and looked and smelled for
Much Ado, however, was merely
an hors d'oeuvre compared with the feast of Hamlet which, he
says, "is not about a bunch of manic-depressives."
The play has haunted him like
the ghost haunts the prince, whispering "Do it. Do it."
Introduction to Shakespeare
Hamlet was the first Shakespeare
play Branagh ever saw. He was 16 and the actor playing Hamlet
was Derek Jacobi. That experience so affected Branagh that not
only did he decide to become an actor, he also wrote to Jacobi
and later visited him backstage as a drama student.
"I told him, 'You've got
to realize that you'll live a life of constant rejection,"'
recalls Jacobi. "Of course, he went out and was an immediate
Later on, when Branagh did his
first Hamlet, he asked Jacobi to direct.
"I had to keep putting the
brakes on him," says Jacobi. "It was a very active
Hamlet, too fast. Now, with experience and a greater knowledge
of the play, he's slowed down."
For his movie, Branagh cast Julie
Christie as Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and Jacobi as Claudius,
Hamlet's uncle, a choice that is surprising but revelatory.
Of Branagh's performance in the
film, Jacobi says: "Ken thinks quickly, and that's a very
attractive quality in an actor. He's also very agile. Acting
comes so naturally to him. It looks like his natural element.
That's true for every second he's on screen. He looks as if he
belongs in that place."
Of all the great classical roles,
adds Jacobi, "Hamlet is the personality part. I think 99
per cent of the time it's played off the personality of the actor
playing it, put into the situation that Shakespeare has given
Hamlet to cope with.
"It's very much the particular
actor's look, sound, charisma, rhythm, movement. Rather than
you becoming Hamlet, Hamlet becomes you."
But how can a can-do, confident
guy like Branagh play the hesitant hero?
"I hesitate plenty,"
says Branagh defensively. "I'm finally decisive, but I haven't
met anybody who isn't full of anxiety and doubts and questions."
Branagh describes Hamlet as "an
X-ray part that reveals your personality, if you choose to be
as real as you can be."
Then, being Branagh, he doesn't
hesitate to interview himself.
"Is Hamlet perennially melancholy?
Certainly not in my case. Is he mad? Certainly not in my case.
Is he a prince of manner and spirit? Yes, I think he is. Well,
I try and do. Is he funny? Yeah, I try to make him funny. I think
he's funny. In a full-length version, you can play all the contradictions
in his character.
"It seems to me to be very
human to be full of contradictions to be cruel and kind and witty
and sour. My intention was to play all of those things to the
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