Kenneth Branagh Answered Your Questions – As It Happened
The star of stage and screen answered your questions from the Manchester festival. Here's what he had to say for himself...
The Guardian, 17 July 2013
Since he burst on to the scene as an impetuous Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1980s, there isn't much Kenneth Branagh hasn't done: directed, written and starred in big-budget Hollywood movies, set up his own touring theatre troupe, rivalled Olivier in popular, cinematic Shakespeare – not to mention brought a touch of glowering Scandinavian noir to these shores in the British version of 'Wallander'.
Branagh currently bestrides the stage as Macbeth at the Manchester international festival, his first time doing live Shakespeare in a decade: it's a visceral production for which a deconsecrated Victorian church has been stripped bare and filled with churning mud (the fight scenes are so full-blooded that one of the cast ended up in A&E last week). The Telegraph called it a "thrilling, cinematically fluid account"; the Guardian's Michael Billington compared Branagh's own performance to Olivier.
• Macbeth will be broadcast in cinemas via NT Live from 20 July.
And here's how he answered your questions ...
Thanks for such a wonderful production! I saw 'Macbeth' twice last week and it was terrific! My question for Sir Kenneth is, how do you prepare every day for the role? How early are you in the venue soaking with the atmosphere, or do you prefer being in silence and meditate about it? Thanks again!
Kenneth Branagh answered:
I do both. Rest, meditate, exercise and get to the venue at least 4 hours ahead of time.
You have often directed and starred in various projects, the most recent being MIF's 'Macbeth' (and 'Jack Ryan' later this year). I was just wondering do you take a different approach to directing knowing you're the one who is going to be doing the acting and would you say it's easier or harder to take on both roles in the same project?
Rob Ashford made the profound difference, as co-director and good friend. He made a lionish contribution and let me concentrate on my performance at all the right times. The creative team across the board were all premiership players, and we absolutely did it 'together' with the company.
Thanks for coming to Manchester, #macbeth helped make mif2013 a big success. Have u enjoyed the city? Have you seen any of the other #mif2013 shows?
I don't see much of the city because of preparing for the show but I love the canals. Most of our company saw and were crazy about Barishnikov and Defoe ('The Old Woman') and 'The Machine', and man, woman and child have fallen in love with Maxine Peake and her amazing Shelley performance.
Any plans for a UK blu-ray release of his 'In The Bleak Midwinter'? I watch it every Christmas.
I would love 'Bleak Midwinter' to be out on blu-ray but for reasons I don't fully understand there are rights issues involved. It somehow got a little bit complicated. But there is a bit of a cult following for it, I'm very glad to say. I would like it to happen, for those who like it to become a Christmas perennial.
What are you reading at the moment?
I'm reading a Peter James crime novel called 'Dead Man's End' and a psychology book called the 'Compassionate Mind'. Both just for general interest rather than homework.
'Henry V' is one of my favorite movies and my favorite scene is Henry carrying the Boy across the field at Agincourt. I love the unbroken flow of the entire scene. I've always been desperate to know if that is one continuous shot or was it edited together. Thank you, Ken.
One continuous shot and for those who don't know and who might be interested, I am - as it were - carrying Batman across the battlefield (it is the 15-year-old Christian Bale). Where's the Batmobile when you need it?
Do you know all the words from the Wiki Wiki Wild West rap?
I know the chorus and when Will Smith sings it I can do some of my amazing moves.
Do you look craggy - as if you are about to go into Agincourt / Bosworth all the time?
Craggy? I think craggy is a pretty good word. Certainly a craggy man appears in my bathroom mirror every morning. Is that the man you mean?
Would you like to guest star in 'Doctor Who'? I think you'd be terrific as The Master.
I am a long time hide-behind-the-sofa-in-the-early-Doctor-Who-in-the 1960s fan. The Master I remember was played brilliantly by an actor called Roger Delgardo. I don't think I can get him out of my mind.
Is there a leader of the Cybermen? Or even just a funny Cyberman?
Could you see youself appearing in a production of 'Macbeth' or 'Hamlet' that was staged in a Bouncy Castle?
Are you allowed mud on a bouncy castle?
Have you ever taken a role and regretted doing so afterwards?
I try not to let life be about regrets.
Any word of the BBC Northern Ireland 'Billy' plays ever being released on DVD? What are your thoughts on those plays now?
I would love that but I don't know if there are plans, sorry.
How about a film version of the 'Macbeth' production? It's been a while (Polanski?) and if "Keith Lemon; The Movie" can get made...?
I have been discussing the possibilities of a film very for the last 15 years, so never say never. Meantime, NT Live give us the amazing opportunity to share this work at cinemas near you. ntlive.com/macbeth
After playing a character like Wallander or Macbeth do you find it easy to leave them behind after it's finished or do you find they stay with you for a time?
Just wanted to say I still clearly remember sneaking into the local cinema under-aged to watch Frankenstein and absolutely loved it, still do!
I work hard to pursue joyful activities away from the performance. When playing Wallander I seem to visit a lot of flower shows.
What are your impressions of Sweden, the country and the people?
I really like Sweden and the Swedish. They are direct, deep and poker-faced when it comes to comedy, in a way that ends up being very ticklish.
Absolutely fantastic to see you performing in Manchester as part of what has been an amazing MiF (and great weather too). Thank you. Come back again?
I would love that.
Are you still any good at pretending to be a tree like we had to in drama class at school?
I have been practicing my mime lately and my fellows tell me I am effective as a Mars bar up a tree. But you have to look *very* carefully.
Roles like Platonov, Wallander, and Macbeth bear an incredible emotional weight. Could you tell us more about why you're drawn to roles, or indeed stories, with that kind of gravity and suffering? And what is the experience for you of living through those experiences night after night - especially when Kenneth Branagh happens to be having a cheery, or a downbeat day?
The dark materials often illuminate the human condition for performer and audience, so the insight and the revelations are definitely worth the efforts made.
There has been a lot of discussion since the very beginning of film-making about the difference between acting in film and acting in live theatre on stage. Have you ever watched video recordings of your live theatre performances or of your rehearsals for live theatre performances? If so, have you found this useful?
In this case, I had the brilliant Rob Ashford take care of all of that. He tells me what to do.
Which Shakespeare play would you say is your favourite to watch, and which is your favourite to perform in?
Also, do you have any advice for a recent graduate (BA in Acting) who is an aspiring Shakespeare actress?
Favourites are impossible, but ... 'Much Ado About Nothing' puts a smile in your heart every time, every which way and is pretty intoxicating to perform in also.
As for advice, Peter Quince directing in 'Midsummer's Night Dream' says simply but possibly unhelpfully, "Take pains, be perfect."
Recently read 'The Power of Now' - have you? And if so: what's your opinion on this practice. As a young actor, I'd please like to know if you find that 'surrendering' your ego helps or takes away from your acting?
You have to serve the play, the writing, the role. It's good to get out of the way (of yourself).
How do you cope in this damn heat!
I don't. I overheat and then I lie down a lot.
Tip for your dog in hot weather: tea towel soaked in cold water. Apply to dog's back. At least they get a little bit cooler. Doesn't work with Scottish kings.
Which Shakespearian character would you most liken to Valerie Singleton from 'Blue Peter'?
What has been your most difficult role to play on stage in your career? And why? Also if you had to choose to do only one of acting or directing for the rest of your career, what would you choose?
Macbeth is certainly a candidate, because although the role is significantly shorter than say, Hamlet, Richard III or Iago, the role is dense and intense, and presents an unusual demand for the performer. And as someone who assumes nothing about anything, I'd be grateful to do either of those things acting or directing across the rest of my career.
What is your favourite scene/outtake which didn't make it into the final cut of one of your films?
A very familiar paraphrase occurred when I tried to give Charlton Heston a note when he played the player king in 'Hamlet', I talked to him about the line "Anon he finds him striking too short at Greeks" which unfortunately I repeated "Anon he finds him striking at two short Greeks". Mr Heston was clever enough to spot my stupidity, the paraphrase was left on the cutting floor room.
The 'Macbeth' you're currently appearing in is directed by yourself and Rob Ashford, and contains two household names - it's a fantastic sign for regional theatres that this has happened. Aside from the NT screenings, do you think the show will have life beyond Manchester - do you want it to, or perhaps not? Either way - why?
I have found that if productions of Shakespeare have connected with an audience, then the possibilities for improvement, as the process continues, are high. After 50 performances of a Shakespeare play I've noticed that real breakthroughs can occur. I think the company is interested and willing to explore a future life, interest seems to be high, and so if and when we manage to negotiates the remaining sword fights, and if we wake up safe and in one piece on Monday morning, we'll enjoy exploring that possibility also. So watch this space.
How do you see the supernatural elements of 'Macbeth'? How much do you think the witches are an external force and how much of it is Macbeth's "heat-oppressed" brain?
How did you develop the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? I loved the back-and-forth element of their interactions as opposed to having Lady M. being the only instigator. How did you come to that interpretation of their characters?
I loved the choice of venue for 'Macbeth', and the mud was a very visceral and interesting staging decision. Having most of the action occur in the mud was an unusual comment on the actions of the play. Was there a specific reason or concept behind staging it that way?
I was fortunate enough to see your 'Macbeth' in Manchester, it was absolutely scintillating!
Depending on your point of view, the play reveals as much the human brain's capacity to respond to the slightest of suggestions as much as investigating the possibility of supernatural forces. The dark force here is perhaps as much "the torture of the mind" as the devil.
As for the relationship between the Macbeths, Ian Mckellen used to do a Shakespeare one-man show in which he suggested that there were no happy marriages in Shakespeare. If that is true the exceptions might be the Percy's in 'Henry IV' Part I and (before the terrible events of the play) the Macbeths. It can be easy to seem trite in discussing Shakespeare, but as a basic tenet of the approach was to suggest that Macbeth was a great warrior and that he loves his wife in a profound way. The love is reciprocated by her.
Was there one performance you saw as a kid that planted the seed of wanting to become an actor?
Jacobi's Hamlet. Oxford New Theatre, 1977, sublime.
What attracted you to 'Wallander'? I think you've done a great job with the nine episodes and I hope you complete the whole canon of the Wallander books, so it's clearly a role you enjoy playing? It's filmed so lovingly as well, so the aesthetic seems to be something that was clearly thought about it to make the conversion the whole package.
I read the novels as a passionate reader of crime fiction, and it was only after finishing all of the books that the notion that this could play in English and on UK television even even occurred. What drew me was the landscape, the poetry and the dark, dark brood of the central character.
Sir Kenneth what was the most challenging part of playing Macbeth? And what was your favorite part of playing him?
Two dangerous fights are extremely challenging at either end of the play, but they keep you very sharp and sensitive to your fellow actors. The most enjoyable part has been being amongst a company of such committed and creatively ambitious actors and a backstage team who are as committed to every moment on stage as the people on stage.