Kenneth Branagh hopes to bring excitement over `Hamlet' to new
Philadelphia Daily News, January
by Gary Thompson
Before ``Hamlet'' transformed
his life, Kenneth Branagh was like any other teen-ager - trying
to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, in a way
that involved doing as little actual work as possible. ``I did
a lot of reading at age 13, 14, 15, and developed quite a strong
imagination and an elaborate fantasy world of possibilities,
all in the context of this central issue - what am I going to
do with my life?'' said Branagh, in Philadelphia recently to
promote his lavish new production of ``Hamlet.''
``I knew that I did not want
to have an ordinary job, or what I considered to be an ordinary
job, by which I mean anything in which I had to work with figures,
because I have no mathematical capability at all,'' he recalled.
``All the sciences completely foxed me, and I didn't want to
be in an office.''
That didn't leave young Ken many
avenues of opportunity. Then one magical night, Branagh saw Derek
Jacobi perform ``Hamlet'' on stage.
``I thought, `I can't imagine
anything more glorious than being paid to do this.' Forget about
payment - I just couldn't believe that this could be a job,''
Branagh said, laughing. ``Sometimes I still feel that way.''
Acting wasn't something Branagh
had considered, because it was so far outside the work experience
of his middle-class family.
``I felt as though a light went
on,'' he said.
From that moment, Branagh did
more than consider acting. He became obsessed with acting, with
plays, with poetry. He walked around reciting Shakespeare. He
began to see himself not as a passive consumer of literature
but as someone who could re-imagine it, enact it, make it alive
for himself and others.
``There was something so charged
about seeing this play, live experience, and I remember being
excited even though I didn't understand all the words. I knew
what the actors meant even though I didn't understand what they
were saying,'' Branagh remembered. ``It seemed just a limitless
opportunity to express oneself, in a way that captivated me.''
In bringing ``Hamlet'' to the
movies as a four-hour, wide-screen extravaganza, Branagh hopes
to communicate that same sense of excitement to a new generation.
``Certainly I want to pass on
that thrill I had as I watched it,'' he said. ``That's why I'm
always pleased when I get that kind of reaction from young people,
college students and the like.''
Branagh's spies tell him that
in New York, where people have been lining up to see ``Hamlet''
since it opened in December, audiences represent people from
all walks of life.
``A lot of pals have walked past
the line and seen an octogenarian here, a 15-year-old there,
people from all sorts of social groups,'' he said. ``The lines
include a lot of young people, and I'm very heartened by that.
I'm often stopped on the street by young people for whom it is
suddenly not an odd or an uncool thing to be watching a Shakespeare
film.'' Indeed, Shakespeare has rarely been more popular in the
movie industry. Branagh's ``Hamlet'' closely follows ``Romeo
and Juliet,'' ``Twelfth Night'' and two versions of ``Richard
Shakespeare's enduring popularity,
Branagh said, derives from his skill as an artist, and his profound
understanding of human nature - an understanding that seems to
require constant reinterpretation and revival. ``He continues
to be very elusive, very hard to pin down. You can cite all sorts
of textual evidence to say he was a fascist or a liberal or a
misogynist or a warmonger, because his plays operate on so many
different levels,'' he said. ``A play like `Henry V' can be seen
to be very pro-war or very anti-war without bending the text
in any way.
``As a result, those people who
would wish to perhaps nail him as a particular type of thinker
or writer, when they try and sort of squish him down in one hole,
he pops up somewhere else.''
And of all of Shakespeare's plays,
``Hamlet'' remains the most intriguing, the most challenging
for directors and actors.
``The play carries with it centuries
of almost continuous productions, and yet retains this air of
mystery, probably more than any other play. You don't recall
people labeling any particular production as being definitive.
They tend to say that about other plays, but they never say it
The play's awe-inspiring history
makes ``Hamlet'' an intimidating challenge, especially for someone
like Branagh, who is running out of chances to play the part,
and who knows he will be compared to Olivier, to Jacobi, to other
``You know you've got something
that is bigger than anything else you can do. And from a practical
standpoint, there is quite a lot to learn, quite a lot to shape,
and you've got to keep all of it in your head and still remember
how to do the sword fight,'' he joked. ``As an evening's work
in your chosen profession, that's quite a summons.''
The role also has a unique way
of baring a performer's soul.
``It's a personality part, not
a hunchback and limp. You are very exposed - it becomes a naked
evaluation of you as a person - you allow things to be funny
if you find them funny. You emphasize things that draw you in
- the relationship with the father, with women, your attitude
toward betrayal. The play has to be inflected by you as an individual.''
Most actors are scared to death
of Hamlet, even as they are drawn to the part.
``It's all very frightening,
but those are the very things that make it attractive,'' he said.
``I don't want to get too theoretical
about acting, because it's just a job, but there is a climbing
analogy here. Hamlet is a little like Everest. Maybe you do it
because it is there. You have to be a bit of an adventurer to
have a go at it.''
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