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