With Utter Clarity

The Drama Review, Summer 1997
by Paul Meier

Kenneth Branagh's film version of Hamlet opened in the United States on Christmas Day 1996. Branagh also has directed Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993) for the screen. He can justifiably be credited as the person most responsible for the rise of Shakespeare as a leading author for the contemporary cinema. In his casting, Branagh has pursued an international flavor, freely mixing Americans like Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Denzel Washington, and Keanu Reeves with veteran British Shakespearean actors like John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, and Richard Briers, as well as with actors from other European countries.

This edited interview was recorded on 30 October 1995, at Branagh's office in Shepperton Studios, London, where he was about to begin shooting Hamlet.

MEIER: As a director of Shakespeare and as someone who trains young actors, American actors particularly, I am concerned about how to cope with that language. My delight and preoccupation is to make that very difficult language as fresh, as accessible, and as clear as possible. The whole question of the verse and the meter is fascinating to me, too. I've always admired your work for, among other qualities, its absolute clarity--one hears a lot of work in Britain and America that is not clear. So I wanted to ask what you bring to your creation of Shakespeare roles with regard to the verse and how that intersects with what we might call the "acting." How do you think about that mesh?

BRANAGH: Well, it's an ever-changing thing. Particular plays, particular circumstances, particular actors, and the particular time in your life--bearing in mind that experience gives you different information about different things. I've always felt that there must be some form of balance between a scrupulous observation of the text and a truly imaginative engagement with the character.

I encourage actors to understand that Shakespearean characters think more quickly than we do and probably speak more quickly, and that, well done, is an unusual and rather effective dramatic device. It is exciting when swiftness of thought is conveyed in the theatre with utter clarity. It lifts the audience. Makes the experience special. And to do that there has to be a very strong technical basis. I make a great play of consonants. The consonant bite. Not to overenunciate but, `nevertheless, to give final consonants their due. To do so, often in rehearsal, I'll make actors exaggerate that side of a speech in order to taste the speech, to taste whatever definition Shakespeare has deliberately put in there. So that the bite or the edge, the structure, the sort of aural scaffolding--we try and get a sense of what that is, how that relates to the vowels, how lyrical it is, or how biting the text is. They must have complete control over that and then decide to just change the degree of force that they apply there. But if they don't have that, they will never be flexible inside it. They have to be prepared to look at that in a technical way--accept that it need not deny imagination and, indeed, must not.

But it has to go alongside the research into the character. For example, about Hamlet. In rehearsal I'll talk about the nature of our court; how aware anyone is of the hierarchy; what the court's attitude is to religion; the state of the country, in relation to its prosperity; the imminence of war; how that affects people; the relationships between all the characters; whatever pre-history they have with each other; any information that we can usefully establish and agree on, albeit fictitious, about their off-screen Jives; what happens when they are off-screen; and, especially in the case of a film, is there anything of what we mutually agree can be seen that would help them delineate the lives of characters.

So all of that goes on alongside an observation of every speech and every sentence. Here we have rhymes; here there are half-lines; there the meter is longer; here there is need to follow one long thought through to the end of a line. At another place we decide whether one takes all the subclauses on one breath, if there's any point to that. Sometimes to do that work just technically will inform the actor's imagination because it certainly feeds back the other way. Nothing is done in isolation. A sense of the music and of the structure of the verse, the kinds of words used, an observation of each character's vocabulary, whether they tend to repeat particular words, all of that detective work I ask them to employ. I also ask actors to take a dictionary or a thesaurus to look at the word "honor" or "nobility"--in the case of Hamlet, for example--where we may be overfamiliar with a word or concept. Or, in the case of Henry V, what is the concept of a Christian king?

Hugh Cruttwell's one of those people who has made me aware that it is important to allow an actor to choose, for example in Hamlet, in the middle of the "rogue and peasant slave" speech--"For it cannot be that I am pigeon-livered"--whether to stress "am" or "pigeon-livered," the much richer word. The former is simply to stress the personal. Actors, particularly in Shakespeare, gravitate toward those kinds of personal readings.

MEIER: The tyranny of the personal pronoun.

BRANAGH: Yes, the personal pronouns are tricky. They make actors feel they have a very personal connection with the text, but there is a price to pay in the sense of stressing those pronouns. Once you point it out to actors, on the whole, they are rather more intrigued to enjoy the color and the richness of the nonpersonal word or phrase. Sometimes, though, that's a bartering process.

MEIER: How much of a stickler for rhythmic and metrical analysis are you?

BRANAGH: Well, because I don't consider myself remotely an expert on it I find there can often be a stress on this, often an uninformed emphasis on this. It's a great sort of bogus mystery about verse-speaking if it is studied in isolation, if it's ever disconnected. I've seen very prominent actors who, in the way that they deliver speeches--often at memorial services where people deliver purple passages from Shakespeare--who will, as if pointing to a blackboard, have very pronounced rising inflections that absolutely mark in the end of the line, and as a result make it just as meaningless as someone who brings to it just a wodge of feeling. I would almost always prefer the wodge of feeling. Of course that's no good either. I try to make the exploration of verse as concretely practical as I can.

MEIER: Tying it in to character?

BRANAGH: Yes. And thinking of it as part of the imaginative journey. Clues are there in the verse and language. You find out that perhaps a half-line is there to indicate a significant pause. And not to leave a pause until, textually, there is some indication of a pause. Sometimes people break the lines up in a way that defeats the sense. I do, however, think it is quite possible to break the lines up. Some of the greatest practitioners, like Gielgud, often have quite irregular ways of phrasing things, and yet, somehow, the energy of their thought connects across the pause. The tension is sustained in what they present. Sometimes in Shakespeare, even in verse, it is tremendously seductive to produce a naturalistic tone. I certainly enjoy myself, in prose, where I think it is legitimate, whilst retaining some kind of consistent sense, phrasing things in an utterly modern way.

MEIER: Benedick, for example.

BRANAGH: Benedick is a good example. The Katherine/Henry wooing scene in Henry V is another example where, I think, a certain amount of license is available to the actor, given that it is in prose. In rehearsal, what works works. I think you ought to try everything. So many people come to Shakespeare--even the most experienced actors who may not have direct practical experience with Shakespeare--intimidated and frightened, and who sometimes absolutely pin their colors to the mast, with real sincerity and fidelity to verse-speaking, and who'll fall into the trap of making it academic or workshoppy or laboratorized...

MEIER: ...decorating the text?

BRANAGH: Yes, so that there may be some sort of brilliant illumination of something that isn't performance. One tries to remind actors that they are supposed to be real people in a real situation in performance. It's a living thing. And some major part of themselves and their personal response to it, in how they present themselves as that character, is very, very necessary in order to make it live rather than become an illustration of a terrific piece of poetry. It's a mysterious thing, that. I mean you try to protect it both ways. Sometimes actors can have tremendous energy and vitality and can actually get away with larding a speech with massive, massive energy so you get only one or two tones in it which in itself can be effective, but they've lost seven or eight moments, or changes, or different colors that the thing could have had if they'd said, "There's a full stop there, I'll stop. Or let's take those subclauses on one breath."

I use Russell Jackson, Associate Director of the Shakespeare Institute, and Hugh Cruttwell as two people who support the actors. I feel my role in these situations is to direct and to edit and to provide them with pointers for decisions which ultimately they'll make themselves. Sometimes actors spend a long time with Russell discussing the usage of a particular word or a concept in Shakespeare that they are not familiar with, and he is a terrific resource for that. Sometimes what Hugh does is to concentrate on character. Hugh's more interested in that, and the story, the drama, and the psychological motivation of each of the characters, than he is in a pursuit of the text. I try to keep both influences there. I am interested in the text, but I do find myself resistant to the notion of verse-speaking in some kind of vacuum advanced by people who then don't actually follow it up. There's a lot of woolly chat and people hiding behind it. There are genuine experts. I think John Barton knows it all inside out and is linked to being a practical man of the theatre.

MEIER: And roots it in character and situation so nicely and uses that as a clue...

BRANAGH: ...I think that's right. But I think there is a desire among some Shakespeareans to make it a technical exercise; to actually appropriate some part of this work that can be studied in isolation. There's no question but that work on the voice can be useful in all sorts of other ways--with singing, exercises, and whatever seems appropriate for the individual. Whether they are thinking about posture, Alexander work, increasing rib control, or being more aware of their diaphragm, or finding other notes and tones, or working on rooting the voice a bit more. That can be done in isolation, although it's always fun to have a text to play with while doing it. It's a dangerous area. It's one of the things that creates a mystique. I personally believe that any fit and imaginative actor, from whatever country, with the appropriate mindset, can have a go at Shakespeare. I resist slightly the appropriation that this country makes for it.

MEIER: We've got about a hundred years of recordings of actors doing Shakespeare so we can review a century of shifting styles and values. I wondered what you thought of the shifts in style over the last decades and of your place in charting new styles and new ways of dealing with these texts.

BRANAGH: I don't know that I am the right person to talk about it. There is a certain kind of Shakespearean acting which is, in a way, self-conscious and yet, if brilliantly executed, gives pleasure. An example of that is Olivier's Hamlet on film, which is very self-conscious. The delivery of the verse is very self-conscious from someone who was perhaps not an absolute natural for the role, and his delivery is quite different in terms of its naturalism from his performance as Richard III, for instance, or Henry V. In Henry V the regality, the kingly demeanor, somehow sat with his delivery. And, at the time he made it, the oratorical, rhetorical style had a certain Churchillian ring to it. There is no doubt that he identified with that project as a national event, as part of the war effort. In some way he was speaking for England, and he did it brilliantly.

MEIER: And then it came your turn.

BRANAGH: For me it was much more the personal journey of an individual who was growing into what was required of a statesman, and his responses to those public demands that were made upon him. His responses were urgent, passionate, and by the time he gets to the St. Crispin's Day speech he is much more aware of his place in history and of his need to perform a role for the people around him. He then takes much more delight and relish in the act of speaking. My Henry was much less kingly to begin with. Olivier was kingly throughout, and that affects his style.

MEIER: Is that choice to do with today's society's different attitude to great public figures in general or...?

BRANAGH: Certainly today we are provided with much more behind-the-scenes looks at people--the warts-and-all examination of all public figures, spectacularly demonstrated every four years in America, where to run for president is to have your soul and every other part of your anatomy bared. So that, post-Kennedy, there are no Camelotian figures anymore. Olivier as Henry V could be, at that time, more regal.

MEIER: And that inevitably results in musical differences?

BRANAGH: I think so, because the Henry that we presented had much more earth-based concerns. I think, today, we are much more interested in what his responsibilities cost him in terms of the loss of friends, the isolation. The personal effect of that was rather nobly borne by Sir Lawrence Olivier. But, for a modern Henry, it's a much grimmer prospect. The legitimate needs for friendship, for companionship, especially in today's world where the concentration by the media on every aspect of one's life is so intense, are that much more important. And we enjoy seeing that struggle. And, if we are more interested in ordinary details now, it's because we wish to know them as human beings, or we demand to, perhaps.

MEIER: So these shifts in acting style in the last 100 years--we've been talking about them in terms of the shifts in social psychology. Can they also be analyzed from an aesthetic point of view? Is there any other way to chart the trajectory from the ornate rhetorical style of the 1880s through to the flatter style of today?

BRANAGH: Well I think the advent of the movies has had an effect. For instance, if you look at an important crossover point--the shift in public taste from Gielgud to Olivier--that possibly represents something worth remarking on. I've always thought Gielgud was spectacular throughout his career and much more naturalistic in many ways than Olivier was. But there was Olivier's success as a movie actor in the '30s, and as a very sexy matinee idol, a man of great charisma and sex appeal, particularly as reflected in Richard III, which was a sublime performance such charisma and sex and calm wit--unbeatable! And very different from what he was trying to match in Gielgud. Whereas, though Gielgud could have a more refined and beautiful and lyric style, he still managed to make his work, I think, utterly believable. But he was unique. He was a bridge between the excesses of the style of the 1880s and onwards. I mean he was never Henry Ainley, but Henry Ainley was, I think, at least in what we hear of him, the most extreme version of a presented, lyric, self-conscious style. But, in Hamlet, Olivier tries to ape it, and it's not his natural suit, and so what one gets is a beautiful sounding voice that is in a sort of vacuum: too, too solid flesh would melt." Which is inhuman in a way. You have a tone of melancholy. A beautiful tone of melancholy. But you don't get the character. I've never heard Gielgud do that without investing himself completely in it.

Whereas Olivier's best work was in the nonlyric, passionate, forceful, warrior roles. I'm sure he was fantastic as Hotspur. Big though he was, he was very impressive to me as Othello, albeit in a filmed recording of the play. No one, unless it is Ralph Fiennes, has found a way to be an heir to the tradition of Gielgud where if he stays--and it's a difficult thing to do when so many people are telling him he sounds so wonderful--if he can stay this side of the "voice beautiful," if, actually, his musical instrument is not so adored that he loses sense as a result of it. That can be a wonderful combination. But I think that Gielgud and what he represented best was superseded by the urgent, violent, passionate, emotionally driven style of Olivier's, which occasionally-and the film of Hamlet is one example of it--he tried to resist in himself, not playing to his strengths. In a sense he was trying to tame this tiger within. I'm not saying that Gielgud wasn't passionate. He was. But I think that the shifts in this century have meant that it's much harder for modern actors to play roles like Richard II or Hamlet or Henry VI. The modem actor has less in his armory to do that kind of work.

MEIER: What would you say is your place in that continuum? In that shifting musicality?

BRANAGH: For me, it's a changing thing. I'm always asked to lecture or talk about Shakespeare, which I never do because I genuinely feel as though I don't have anything to say other than to practice it. I'm always happy to have a conversation about it because it's an exchange of ideas, but I have no set view on it except to try and be as real as possible, and some of the things we've been talking about today help to achieve that. But watching the television, being in life, being aware of our own culture of the moment helps to achieve that if you embrace, as I do, the determination to make real and alive this man's work 400 years on. Somebody in my film A Midwinter's Tale says, "Why should kids today be interested in a 400-year-old play about a depressed aristocrat?" Well, I don't know sometimes, I really don't, because we put a lot in the way including a lot of narcissistic acting. People in general, actors in particular, love to suffer. They can give up pretty much anything but their suffering, and that can result in a self-indulgent acting which is not without vocal beauty sometimes, but it doesn't mean anything. For me, working on Shakespeare is the search for meaning, and that can be expressed in being utterly real, using an accent, not using an accent, putting it in modern dress, not putting it in modern dress, with an ongoing assessment of what the sacrifices you make are if you do any of those things. You normally sacrifice something. It's very hard to get everything out or a Shakespeare play. If you set Romeo and Juliet in war-torn Belfast, it puts a terrific focus on the feuding--but Shakespeare's play is about a household feud, not a religious feud.

I've played Iago on film, and I enjoyed there the naturalism that the film affords, especially if you can marry it to that naf old thing of people coming out and saying, "I understood every word."

MEIER: But they're so delighted when that happens!

BRANAGH: Yes, and it's the effort to be effortless that I'm engaged in. It's so easy to sound arch. Very easy on the television particularly. That's why I find myself tremendously disappointed by the BBC TV Shakespeares. There's something so lifeless.

MEIER: It's iconography, isn't it?

BRANAGH: They're certainly aware of (pompous voice) "The BBC Shakespeare"...

MEIER: ..."Recorded for all time"...

BRANAGH: ...yeah, very dangerous.

MEIER: Cicely Berry was saying to me the other day, and of course she wasn't being entirely serious, that the cultural pilgrimage to Stratford that people from all over the world make to see the work as they have imagined it makes Shakespeare almost impossible to stage. It imposes the burden that you are intoning a liturgy.

BRANAGH: Absolutely. Absolutely. I want to resist becoming, through the power of movies, some kind of representative for Shakespeare in the popular mind, or at least that bit of the populace that has edged towards it because they have seen Much Ado or Henry V or Hamlet. I think it's very dangerous for me as an artist to feel as though I know what I am doing. But in fact it turns out to be no danger because I know I don't! It's all about being a practitioner and challenged each time by the difficulty of doing it well and all the same minefields being ahead of you, perhaps particularly if you've been doing it for some time.

What about Shakespeare in America, particularly your experience? Are American actors more or less frightened, more or less able, more or less anything than your experience of British actors?

MEIER: There's that tremendous hurdle of the genuflection in front of the stuff, that in-built inferiority complex, that it's something that the British do best and once they get over that and can exploit the vigor of their own language, I find they can bring a power to it. I mean British actors can be so tired and anemic and respectable.

BRANAGH: Yes, yes.

MEIER: And you don't get American actors falling into that so much.

BRANAGH: I was much inspired by Laurence Fishburne as Othello, who does some wonderful things, and I thought that he was a Shakespearean natural.

MEIER: At the same time Americans can be so afraid of the rhetoric, the overt rhetoric of the texts. They try to hide the rhyme, they'll try to phrase it so that it's not in verse.

BRANAGH: That's where practice comes in. That's one of the dangers of film--when those things come up people can balk at them because they are frightened of being over-the-top or false or untruthful. Or sometimes when they do let go, they enjoy it so much and it's so new and different that, in fact, they have gone further than it needs. And that's where practice really helps. It interests me a great deal because I admire American actors a lot, and I think Shakespeare is for the world.

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