Kenneth Branagh lightens up with the celebrated English comedy 'The Play What I Wrote'
Time Out New York, 13 March 2003
Kenneth Branagh, one-time enfant terrible of the English stage, has reached an artistic impasse. Still youthful-looking at 42, he's hunched over a table in a midtown rehearsal studio. In town to direct the English comedy team Hamish McColl and Sean Foley in their ballyhooed import The Play What I Wrote, Branagh rubs his head and asks, "Does Robert Goulet make you laugh?"
This is a very serious question. The Play, which won last year's Olivier Award (London's version of the Tony) for Best Comedy, is riddled with English references, and translating them for a Broadway audience presents a challenge. "Eastbourne" becomes "Poughkeepsie." And "Ross Kemp" (a soap actor in Britain) is now "Robert Goulet." Or maybe not. "I don't hear Goulet as a funny name," Branagh says, having second thoughts. "Goooooo-laaay." He shakes his head unhappily. Chuck Norris? Branagh doesn't appear inspired by him either. David Hasselhoff, of course, is perfect, but that idea got nixed when the Baywatch star was recently in a serious motorcycle accident. "We don't want to make fun of him," he says.
As the former Shakespeare prodigy muses about the relative comic merits of "Steven Seagal" and "Jean-Claude Van Damme," one can't help wonder, albeit unfairly, if this the kind of thing Sir Laurence Olivier fretted about. Branagh, let us remember, was once heir to his throne - at just 23 he was receiving raves for lead roles in Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Romeo and Juliet and Henry V. Six years later, he directed and starred in a brilliant and bloody film version of Henry V that was favorably compared with Olivier's seminal interpretation.
Branagh's career has since slowed down, perhaps a victim of his own outsize ambition. He started receiving bad press soon after publishing his memoirs - at age 29. Branagh also began concentrating almost completely on movies, making some clunkers (Frankenstein) as well as bold Shakespeare adaptations (a four-hour, unabridged Hamlet). His schizophrenic career finds him alternating Hollywood diversions with classics from the canon. It's telling that, among the Gielguds and Denches, Branagh's list of favorite actors to work with includes Robert DeNiro and Robert Downey, Jr.
The box office fizzle of last year's Love's Labours Lost (his fourth Shakespeare film effort) was a turning point for Branagh. "I was personally very, very disappointed," he says. "It made me wonder if what I think is important is something anybody else wants to go see."
What was bad news for Branagh was good for the theatre. After a ten year hiatus, he returned to the English stage in 2002, playing the lead in a Sheffield production of Richard III. And next June, he starts rehearsals for a production of David Mamet's Edmond at London's National Theatre. While Edmond and Richard draw on his skill with the serious, The Play What I Wrote is something of a departure for Branagh, who does not have a reputation as a cut-up.
The Play is a silly joke-fest full of slapstick and ping-pong dialogue. An homage to Morecambe and Wise, a Laurel and Hardy-style comedy act beloved in England, the show is about the tense relationship between a team of performers, one of whom wants to be a serious artist, while the other is content to get laughs.
A successful English comedy team themselves, stars McColl and Foley (who go by the name The Right Size) already have one New York hit to their credit. The 1999 play Do You Come Here Often? was a clever metaplay featuring two Beckettian goofballs who've been stuck in a bathroom for a quarter century. Despite their success, neither of the actors (who are joined by Toby Jones in the cast) ever expected to be working with master thespian Kenneth Branagh.
When producer David Pugh told McColl and Foley that he was thinking of Branagh to direct The Play, they were baffled. "Kenneth Branagh walks around his house in Elizabethan tights," Foley says. "What does he have to do with us? Turns out he's a brilliantly funny person."
That may be true, but it's also true that Branagh takes being funny very seriously. For example, he has been brooding about his Goulet problem for much of the day. After working it over in his head a few times, he has a "Eureka!" moment. "Vin Diesel!" Branagh exclaims. "Now that's a funny name. Let me try it." He straightens up from his slump, and his face lights up as if he's about to go once more unto the breach. He recites the name, putting emphasis on the first syllable: "DEEEEE-zul." Branagh looks relieved, like a man who has found his way out of a long, dark tunnel. "It's funny," he observes, "how in a discussion of what's funny, there can be no laughs at all."
The Play What I Wrote is playing at the Lyceum Theatre.