Plays & Players, May 1992
by Graham Hassell
**thanks to Virginia Leong
He's playing Coriolanus
this month at Chichester, Hamlet for the RSC at the end
of the year, and he's got a new film out soon. Graham Hassell
asks, is nothing beyond our Ken?
Now that the lid seems finally
nailed shut on the coffin of the 1980s, reassessment of that
aggressive, preening, get-rich decade will become a veritable
boom industry in itself. Politically and economically, when it
comes to dividing the achievements from the catastrophes, issues
will no doubt remain contentious for some time. But when it comes
to writing a new chapter of theatre history there will be a clearly
discernible landmark towering above the evolving topography.
In amongst the carping about Arts Council grants falling behind
inflation and the reluctant moves to find subsidy, the pleas
from the critics for more new writing being drowned by the sound
of West End musicals, and the growing contribution of women directors
and authors on the scene, is the single most impressive development
- the emergence of Renaissance.
At still only 31 Branagh is as
thrustingly symbolic of the period as Canary Wharf - the difference
being that Ken is fully occupied. He made his West End debut
in Julian Mitchell's Another Country exactly ten years
ago playing alongside Rupert Everett. Tellingly, Everett had
the starring role as a handsome public school boy whose latent
homosexuality sets him on the road to becoming a Guy Burgess-like
spy; Branagh had the character role as Judd, the school's lone
Marxist, railing against the system, society and the state, and
trying to lose himself in Das Kapital.
Branagh never really looked back.
Three years on he had reached a personal goal by working with
the Royal Shakespeare Company, not as a spear carrier but as
the King in Henry V. Two years later he'd outgrown the
company and formed his own, Renaissance. He supported its early
existence by writing Beginning, a short, 240-page biography,
for which Chatto and Windus gave him a substantial advance. Successful
productions of Shakespeare in the West End (not an easy task),
including Branagh giving his first professional Hamlet,
prompted greater confidence and eventually led to the 1989 Renaissance
film on Henry V. Branagh adapted, directed and played
the title role. It won wide acclaim, a clutch of international
awards and two Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director.
Since then his diary has been characterised by never having a
blank day in it.
Branagh, however, is keen to
point out that the leaps and bounds of his successes in the 1980s
were coincidental to, rather than aided by, the prevailing political
climate. In one instance he had to resist the embrace of its
tentacled influence. Before its premiere the RSC Henry V
had already been labelled a "post-Falklands" version,
leaving it to Branagh and director Adrian Noble to lean concertedly
away from the play's crude jingoism and "superficial militaristic
pageantry" or else be seen as condoning the South Atlantic
war. A few years later, with Renaissance up and running, the
company's very modus operandi seemed to some to pay lip service
to government tenets, daring to rise, thrive and survive without
"We had to resist all along
the notion that we personified some kind of Thatcherite, self-help
momentum," Branagh explains. "That was pure bunkum.
What we'd done was much more rooted in a theatrical tradition
that goes back hundreds of years - namely, to put on shows and
pay our way. The profit motive, I can honestly say, has been
entirely absent from our endeavours. The truth is that I had
a level of commercial reclame which allowed me to subsidise
the company, while the actors themselves subsidised it by working
for less than commercial rates. Our sin is only to have existed
outside the world of government grants, and that is somehow,
in some quarters, seen as a bad thing. Yet I have nothing but
support for the notion of subsidy, and wish it to continue, and
for there to be more of it. And indeed that we could have some
of it!" Yet despite Branagh's high profile (Hollywood films
are now within his ambit since he starred in and directed Paramount
Pictures' Dead Again last year), after five years of profitable
work funding is still the constant problem for Renaissance.
"It's just not as easy as
saying 'here are some people who've been on TV and are a bit
famous, I'm sure you'll want to give us something for nothing'.
And the recession has made it worse. Although we were well sponsored
for our world tour of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's
Dream, it was very difficult to get money for last year's
tour of Uncle Vanya, and it continues to be difficult.
There are no safe bets. Even the national companies are finding
it difficult. Personally though, I'd rather put my own money
into a production than have to go to 18 meetings that mean missing
six rehearsals. Selling yourself can be a self-defeating exercise.
Saying time-consuming thank-yous to sponsors eventually goes
against the art you are trying to create."
Branagh thinks one way to survive
is by remaining small. The company core is only eight people
in two offices. They do without a theatrical base, take on one
project at a time and draw from a pool of freelance actors and
technicians, 50% of whom have been used before, giving the company
a familial cohesiveness. Branagh himself has nothing more to
do with the administration, but allows that his interest in the
educative process of the productions lead him to write, act,
produce and direct in turn. As for a company mainfesto, there
never was one. "We were, are, no more than a group of like-minded
people who like to do plays and take them on tour...and in the
plays, the choice of plays, and in the running of the company
will be expressed the politics and views we hold. We did not
set out to be alternative to anything, merely to create an atmosphere
in which a company could exist and from which high-quality work
could emerge, especially Shakespeare, who was not well served
because of the economics of large-cast tours by the national
companies." Branagh, at this point slipping into a kind
of legalese learned from the lawyers he must increasingly have
to deal with, cites the example of the RSC touring Richard
III, which British Telecom decided not to sponsor in favour
of another company's commercial Agatha Christie mystery. "Here
then is the very gap we hope to fill."
Branagh's personal career, coupled
with his Renaissance promulgation, led some critics to deride
his seeming ubiquity. The man was everywhere - on TV, in the
West End, on the bookshelves, at the cinema and then out on video.
He was his own PR industry. Being multi-talented was OK, but
talking about it wasn't. The film of Henry V brought the
inevitable comparisons with Olivier, which gave its detractors
even more fodder. (Branagh didn't mind a bit - "everyone
playing the classics is, of course, compared to other interpreters.
Olivier and Gielgud themselves were compared by people who remembered
Irving. It's a part of general criticism, which I appreciate,
even enjoy.") Could no one rid us of this omnipresent thespian?
It became impossible to tell the man from the hype. Then, two-and-a-half
years ago, he married Emma Thompson, a high-profile comedienne
just making media waves, and the whole business cranked up another
notch. Branagh's attitude to fame and infamy has throughout remained
"In retrospect I can see
there was a honeymoon period. After that there were equal and
opposite reactions. Some people love you, others don't love you.
But people's reactions are so subjective. Not everyone is going
to like what you do. So you can get bashed about a bit as you
go in and out of fashion. Yes, undoubtedly, sometimes people
take very personal and perhaps unfair attitudes towards one,
but I've always had my champions and supporters. There's a price
to pay for every level of achievement. I have no complaints."
It's the paparazzi coverage which
feeds most people's impression of Kenneth Branagh. But what this
impression fails to recognise is how hard-working he is, how
professional and on top of his subject. He certainly didn't get
where he is today by chance. If Henry V made him, his
investment in the part was proportionate. He'd studied it at
RADA, then had a "luxurious" ten-week rehearsal period
with it before the 1984/5 Stratford and Barbican runs, reading
every biography of the King along the way. He even topped off
his preparation with a fireside chat with the Prince of Wales
- adding, as it were, a little touch of Charlie in the right
places. That the later film worked so well was clearly no accident
- Branagh knew Henry backwards. A further demonstration of his
professionalism can be seen in his adoption of the de Niro school
of acting, which had him lose two stone to play DH Lawrence on
TV in 1986. Would he ever do that again?
"For Scorsese, yes, I would.
It's nice to put yourself in the hands of someone you really
trust. And if directors meet that kind of commitment with their
own fidelity to the work then it's great, and not just so much
Beyond Peter's Friends,
a new comedy drama for Renaissance Films, directed by and starring
Branagh with support from Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Mrs Branagh
too, now at the end of the editing stage, the latest project
is Coriolanus for the Chichester Festival season playing
through May and June, directed by Tim Supple. The production
marks Renaissance's fifth anniversary. Luckily this is not a
weighty part in the Raging Bull sense, just heavy on the
line-learning. A scar here, a little blood there, should do the
trick. For the rest the interpretation will be all Mr. Branagh's...well,
with a little help from his Renaissance friends, that is.
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