Baby Grand Old Man
Sunday Times, April 19 1992
by Paul Donovan
Kenneth Branagh, precocious young
lion of British acting, is is juggling so many projects that,
even for him, it is hard to keep track. Little wonder he looks
The Renaissance Theatre Company,
which he founded, is five years old next week. His new production
of Hamlet will be broadcast on Radio 3 a week tonight, and he
will repeat the role for the RSC this winter. Next month, he
opens in Coriolanus at Chichester Festival Theatre. Between rehearsals,
he's editing a new comedy film he has directed called Peter's
Friends, to be released this autumn. It is Renaissance's second
film and follows Henry V, which won him Oscar nominations for
both best actor and best drector.
Next weekend's radio play has
one of the most illustrious casts assembled in Britain in recent
years. Three former Hamlets, for a start: Branagh, Sir John Gielgud
(who this time plays the Ghost), and Deebi (udius). Not to forget
Richard Briers (Polonius), Dame Judi Dench (Gertrude), Michael
Elphick (First Gravedigger), Sir Michael Hordern (Player King),
Emma Thompson (Player Queen), her younger sister Sophie (Ophelia)
and Michael Williams (Horatio).
A co-production between Renaissance
and BBC Radio, it runs just under four hours and is the first
Hamlet that either the BBC or Branagh has done which uses the
ull text, based on the First Folio of 1623. It goes out on the
60th anniversary of Gielgud's first radio Hamlet.
Branagh, 31, had three days of
corn-coloured stubble and bags under his blue eyes when we met.
He is softly spoken, and scrupulously well-mannered. ''I know
people say I'm a workaholic,'' he says, ''but I don't remotely
feel that way. We took three months off at the end of last year
and went travelling round Ireland (he was born into a large Protestant
family in Belfast, the son of a joiner) and when I finish my
RSC Hamlet next spring, I'll take time off again.
''I took my cue from an interview
I saw with Robert De Niro in which the interviewer said 'Why
are you doing so much? Three or four films a year, you're never
off our screens.' And De Niro said: 'Well, I feel on top of my
game. It's an important time for me to be working.' That's how
I feel, too.''
Branagh founded the Renaissance
company with fellow actor David Parfitt, who was then playing
the young farmer Tim Beacham in The Archers. ''My definition
of success,'' he said at the time, ''is control.'' He was resurrecting
the old Victorian and Edwardian tradition of actor-managers,
but with the businesslike approach of the entrepreneurial 1980s.
He quickly succeeded in attracting actors of the calibre of Judi
Dench, Derek Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan.
The Prince of Wales, perhaps
swayed by Branagh's electrifying performance as his distant ancestor,
Henry V, at Stratford, agreed to become the company's patron.
It was interesting that, in the course of a 50-minute conversation
with Branagh, the only question he directly avoided was whether
he had been to Highgrove. ''We tend to bump into each other,''
was his reply. ''He sees most of our things. He'll hear this
Hamlet before it goes out. He's a great listener to literature,
as well as a reader. Like the world at large, he's fond of talking
books on tape. I think he's a terrific man, very genuine, and
a thousand times more intelligen than people think.''
Renaissance has embraced both
classics and new work, both here and abroad, and has concentrated
on the accessible. There was a world tour of King Lear and A
Midsummer Night's Dream, sponsored by Burmah Oil, in which everyone
received the same wage of Pounds 400 a week. Branagh played Jimmy
Porter in Look Back in Anger, which Dench directed. Another seasoned
actor, Derek Jacobi, turned director for Renaissance's Hamlet,
which went to Elsinore as well as the West End. It is a carousel,
with the same group of Equity members constantly getting on and
off. Peter's Friends, about six old friends reuniting on New
Year's Eve in a country house, features Branagh's wife, Emma
Thompson, and his mother-in-law, Phyllida Law, as well as chums
such as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton. Such an
approach has brought sneering charges of nepotism and incestuousness,
but it produces an environment Branagh finds congenial. It is,
after all, his company, or rather half of it is. He and Parfitt
are the two shareholders in Renaissance Theatre Company Ltd.
''Our main achievement is that
we're sill here after five years and still enjoying it,'' he
says, ''and building up a loyal audience in the regions. The
other main achievement is with actors. I guess the most obvious
example is Richard Briers, who has played Malvolio and Lear and
Bottom and undergone a fairly radical change in terms of his
career. He is so different from the man the public associates
with The Good Life. What we have tried to achieve is a signature
tune of clarity and non-pomosity.'' Branagh has seen to it that
they have gone to Northern Ireland once a year, and set up a
trust which helps gifted youngsters from both Ulster and the
Irish Republic to study drama on the mainland. Both his films,
Henry V and the Hitchcockian thriller Dead Again, were premiered
Hamlet is the centrepiece of
Renaissance's birthday party. It was the first Shakespeare play
Branagh saw, as a 15-year-old pupil at Meadway Comprehensive
in Reading; he played Hamlet at Rada; after that he played Laertes
to Roger Rees's Prince with the RSC; then he played the Prince
again in the Renaissance stage productio in 1988; and now this.
''When you're 21 it's perhaps
the adventure story, the romantic, noble, Jacobean revenge hero
who appeals. Ten years on, it's more a story of a man who works
though his problems to find a sense of inner peace. Exactly the
same words you spoke the first time strike a deeper chord. In
your early thirties your parents or grandparents start to go
and you start to think more about death.
''Hamlet's journey through the
play is the journey of a man finally able to say: 'If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it
be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.' Death truly
is 'the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns'.
Hamlet is a part which obsesses me, and I find death a subject
of constant fascination and curiosity. The whole notion of mortality
is what we are all obsessed with from the moment we arrive here.
My intense enthusiasm for the play springs out of what light
it sheds on all of that.''
Journalists have found Branagh's
own life a subject of some fascination. In 1989 he married the
witty and beautiful actress whom he had met while filming BBC
television's Fortunes of War in Yugoslavia and Greece. The ''golden
couple of showbusiness'', as the press called them, invited more
than 200 guests to a lavish service of blessing at Cliveden.
Both Branagh and Thompson are fiercely independent performers
and, asked if they would like children, Branagh seems a mite
''I like kids but, well, so many
people can't have children and so many people have children who
fall sick and there's so much mystery and luck attached to all
of that that, yes, quietly it would be nice but at the same time
I don't assume ... well, it's not quite on the dance card at
the moment. We'll see. The whole process of life I find mysterious,
and talking about it too much get worried in case the gods decide,
'No, you can't have one'. At the moment we're pursuing things
that are very time-consuming and it wouldn't be fair to kids.
Also I don't think we're quite ready. We're busy bees at the
moment, busy bee. If it happens, it'll happen.'' The only time
he mentioned his wife by name was in her capacity as an actress.
He is happier discussing work: the Protestant work ethic is clearly
of deep importance in his life, the drive to be useful.
Perhaps this helps to explain
why Branagh is so drawn to decent characters. Henry V, Hamlet,
Laertes, idealistic Guy Pringle in Fortunes of War. Even the
Gestapo general he plays in a forthcoming Disney film, Swing
Kids, eventually sees the light. A recent report that he had
been approached to play Hitler is, he says, ''complete and utter
fiction''. You cannot imagine Branagh as Hannibal Lecter, or
Iago, Richard III or even Macbeth. He has been compared to Laurence
Olivier but could not, one feels, ever play a Nazi torturer as
Olivier did in Marathon Man. He has neither the tortured psychology
nor, one suspects, any desire to plumb the soul's blackest depths.
Branagh does not quibble with
this analysis. ''I am drawn to characters which offer something.
For example, Peter's Friends is a tremendously uplifting and
warm-hearted film, so that when the audience leaves the cinema
they'll feel better about their lives. I feel that's an important
thing to do, rather than illustrate another piece of appalling
evil or wrongdoing.
''Coriolanus might be called
a fascist, or ruthless or thuggish. Any attempt I've made to
make him heroic the director, Tim Supple, is firmly squashing
out of me. So there may be in me some sort of soft or romantic
or hopeful quality about the human condition that I search for.
I've certainly been drawn to plays like King Lear which are painful
but uplifting. I do want to see the positive side of things.
That's another thing that appeals to me about Hamlet, his incredible
depression. And I feel that a lot. My desire for the other, the
optimistic, is because one can get so terribly weighed down by
how shitty the world is.''
Branagh is not, one feels, an
actor consumed by inner turmoil. But that he is a consummate
craftsman is not to be doubted, and the theatre is the better
for his tireless and enlightened energies. A knighthood surely
cannot be far off. The readiness is all.
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