On the Path of Kings

San Francisco Chronicle, December 10 1989
by Judy Stone

Kenneth Branagh, 29, 'the new Olivier,' tackles 'Henry V'

At 29, Kenneth Branagh bridges the gap between king and commoner with deceptive ease. In England, the Belfast-born actor is acclaimed as the ''new Laurence Olivier,'' but he keeps his distance from a theatrical world ''in which so many people are pretentious and self-satisfied and smug.''

His assessment of that milieu seemed quite calm and self-assured when he visited San Francisco recently to talk about his daring venture: a new screen version of Shakespeare's ''Henry V,'' which he adapted and directed. He also stars in the film, which opens Friday at the Bridge Theater. Olivier did not accomplish this feat until he was 36.

There are those who think it was risky for Branagh to challenge what critics consider Olivier's definitive Henry. But in all modesty, he takes a different view.

''Olivier's 'Henry' was a knight in shining armor,'' Branagh (pronounced Branna) said. ''I feel the play is about a journey toward maturity. It's also a fascinating debate about war.''

In dramatizing England's invasion of France in 1415, Shakespeare wanted the play to be ambiguous, Branagh said. ''He acknowledges that war can be exciting sometimes. There's great camaraderie and adrenalin flows, but it's also inelegant and awkward. Finally, Shakespeare says it's not really worth it, but he understands the inevitability of man's capacity for aggression. He would like to put a slow stop to those wheels of inevitability. The film tries to create an undertone of sadness, a melancholy that acknowledges why war happens and that certain elements are positive, but basically says that it's deeply regrettable.''

Mostly, Branagh wanted to make ''Henry V'' comprehensible, particularly to the young. He'd like to discourage the kind of awe in the face of Shakespeare that his own working-class parents expressed when they first saw him in a play by the Bard.

''They said, 'We enjoyed it very much, but then, we wouldn't know.' I'm always berating them about this kind of forelock-tugging mentality. I think I recognize something of that in myself but I tell them, 'For Christ's sake, don't you feel that or I'll feel it even more!' I've got enough chips on my shoulder! About education and all that kind of caboodle, the whole class thing in British society.''

The slight, reddish-haired Branagh traces that reaction back to the changes in his life when he was 9 and his parents moved to the middle-class suburb of Reading, 50 miles from London, in order to improve their economic condition. In Belfast, he'd been in a large extended Protestant family with two grandfathers renowned for ''being hard-drinking and hard-up,'' as he recalls in his new autobiography, ''Beginning.''

''You knew where you were,'' Branagh explained. ''You were forced to be aware of what people's names were _ if they were Catholic or Protestant. The danger and suspicion implicit in that alerted me very early on to being on my mettle, but at home there was an ongoing party line about being absolutely fair.''

His early experiences made him want to break down such distinctions. ''I don't like anything that rounds home this class superiority, including the appropriation of certain types of art or culture. It's continually important for me to feel that I'm doing something worthwhile and that my parents are aware of its being so. The more I'm involved with acting and production, the more practical I feel its applications are and its value. It's more than just being in entertainment at the crudest level.''

Therein lies the difference he finds between himself and Richard Burton. Branagh believes that Burton felt a ''great self-loathing about being an actor. I think some basic bit of him felt it was a nancy thing for him to do and that it was fey, and he should have been a rugby player or done something more masculine. But then, he was entering a very gay world. John Gielgud was one of his first mentors, and he was gay. Terrence Rattigan and Emlyn Williams and all those people. There was something very camp and effete about it. So different from Burton's Welsh mining family background. I think he was drawn to it and very confused. ''

On the other hand, Branagh immediately sensed that the role of an actor was important. He went from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art directly into Julian Mitchell's hit play ''Another Country,'' which dealt with the exclusive public-school background of the upper-class Brits who eventually became traitors.

Branagh played Judd, a teenage Marxist. He was based loosely on Esmond Romilly (Jessica Mitford's first husband who died in Spain) and poet John Cornford, who also was killed fighting for the Loyalists.

''I met (Mitford) briefly,'' Branagh recalled. ''She was delightful telling me about Romilly. She was sweetly protective of him and thought there was more of Cornford than Romilly in the character of Judd.''

Branagh considered Judd a romantic, a great breaker-down of barriers. ''Bits of me would love to have had his iconoclastic qualities. He had compassion and acerbic wit, always directed against bullies and the English class system. He was a committed Communist, but also a genuinely warm and nice human being. It's difficult to understand what motivated those guys, but in spite of all, they were very touching. They were pure in a way that is hard for us at this end of the century to be. I feel the lack of it (idealistic leadership), but I also feel the appetite for it. That's why people like Prince Charles are so amazingly popular.''

He had met the prince while fretting about how to get into the spirit of Henry V for a Royal Shakespeare Company production. Friends arranged for the two to meet. ''I felt nervous. I thought, 'Christ, what am I going to ask him?' I didn't want to impersonate him. I wanted to throw my thoughts about the part past him because he was in such a unique position to comment. It's like many things you do when researching a part. It may only be a thought to go into the old think tank. I believe in filling yourself up emotionally as well as just perfecting the limp or the eye patch. I like the inside stuff to be kind of . . . informed .''

Branagh said he wasn't there to be impressed by meeting a famous person. ''I had absolutely actor's tunnel vision. I wanted to take away some sense of what it was like to be regal and isolated. I learned that he took his job very seriously and was attempting to wield his considerable influence with responsibility and to strike all these balances without taking himself so seriously that he was priggish and self-righteous. I felt that there was no truth to the stories that Charles was intellectually weak or a bit of an upper-class twit. I think he examines himself regularly and through God. I think he questions himself always. I think there's a real Hamlet in him.''

Branagh felt that his meeting with Prince Charles was a kind of model for Henry V's conversation on the battleground with Williams, the common man. ''Charles has a way of listening very carefully and with consideration. There was an openness I found inspiring. He has a great possibility of being the inspiring leader with one foot in the world of Camelot and the other in dirty politics. Like the Kennedys or Martin Luther King. People are people and contradictory _ sometimes disappointing because they're flawed. Shakespeare certainly means that to be the case with Henry V.''

Although Branagh had a resounding success with the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of ''Henry V,'' he also was completely frustrated. ''The idealism I felt on joining the RSC had been severely eroded,'' he wrote in ''Beginning.'' ''The atmosphere resembled the claustrophobic self-obsessed world of drama school at its worst.''

He poured out his feelings in a one-act play, ''Tell Me Honestly,'' an ''in-house satire'' that did not endear him to the RSC brass, although it produced the show. Television rescued him with roles as D.H. Lawrence in ''Coming Through'' and as Mrs. Alving's son in Henry Ibsen's ''Ghosts.'' He followed with film stints in ''High Season'' and ''A Month in the Country.'' His role in ''Fortunes of War'' was not only a success professionally, but personally. He married his co-star, Emma Thompson, who plays Katherine in his ''Henry V.''

While dreaming of starting his own theater company, Branagh still had Belfast on his mind. He wrote ''Public Enemy,'' a ''determinedly unsophisticated'' play about a slightly crazed unemployed youth who loved watching old Jimmy Cagney movies and began acting out some of his roles.

''It was an attempt to capture some bit of the common man's voice,'' Branagh said. ''In his eyes, Belfast is a gangster town where some people make money out of continuing the violence. People who are small-time mobsters use political ideals as an excuse. I think it's utterly true as I honestly believe most people in Belfast do. But at the same time, they carry guns and kill your children and threaten you so people don't want to say these things. The play was a thriller and evenhandedly critical.''

The work died a ''swift and horrible death,'' Branagh said. ''The critics savaged it. The British resist all things about Northern Ireland. Every Irish person who saw it _ from both sides of the border _ loved it because they know that situation too well. I think it would be dangerous to do in Ireland.''

WITH that play out of his system and the autobiography bringing in some urgently needed cash, Branagh finally formed his Renaissance Theatre Company. He got three distinguished actors to make their debuts as directors. Dame Judy Dench directed Branagh as Benedick in ''Much Ado About Nothing.'' Geraldine McEwan guided him as Touchstone in ''As You Like It'' and Derek Jacobi directed him in ''Hamlet.''

All three of them perform in the film version of ''Henry V.'' Their professionalism helped to ease Branagh's panicky feelings about directing. He was much more secure about the cuts he made in the play and the restoration of lines that had been eliminated in Olivier's ''Henry V,'' which was released just after the D-Day landings in Normandy. Winston Churchill had reportedly asked Olivier to cut the scene with Lord Scroop and any notions of English treachery. ''It was deemed unsavory to have an Allied leader talking about spiking children and throwing old men's heads against the walls,'' Branagh said. These scenes were included in the new version, but Branagh eliminated Fluellen's revenge on Pistol, which he didn't think was funny, and cut other lines that were not understandable or amusing.

HE had no problems with the actors. ''I knew they would do it the way I wanted. Realistic. Naturalistic. Nondeclamatory. And the fact that they were onboard meant that the technical crew were much more behind me.''

He had long talks with Kenneth MacMillan, the director of photography, explaining the atmosphere of conspiracy that he wanted at the beginning of the film and the smoky shadows that should fill the torch-lit medieval castles. ''I storyboarded the entire thing. Much good that does when you try to explain it to the horse you're on for the day. What I had determined not to do was actually consider the whole thing at one time. I worked scene by scene and page by page. If I ever thought about the whole thing, I couldn't sleep.''

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