On the Path of Kings
San Francisco Chronicle, December
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
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
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
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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