The Bard's the Star: Kenneth Branagh Brings Shakespeare to New Audiences
Actor and Director to Be Public Face of Film London, Which Aims to Celebrate Playwright’s 400th Death Anniversary With Series of Radical New Projects

The Guardian, 20 December 2015
By Dalya Alberge
Thanks, Jane

Sir Kenneth Branagh is to become the figurehead for a major international film project, that will aim to introduce new audiences to Shakespeare through fresh commissions.

Branagh, one of Britain’s leading Shakespearean actor-directors, said the celebration is not “merely a commemorative experience”, but one that will connect filmmakers and film viewers.

Film London, which promotes the capital as a world-class film and television centre, is behind the project, linked to worldwide celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death next year.

The new programme’s commissions include 'The Hungry', a UK-Indian co-production – a contemporary retelling of 'Titus Andronicus' – as well as short films by all-female directors, animations and a BBC documentary.

A quarter of a century ago, Branagh starred in Stephen Evans’s production of 'Henry V'. Despite scepticism from investors and distributors, who predicted it would be a commercial failure, the film attracted two Oscar nominations for Branagh as best director and best actor, and inspired other popular Shakespeare movies.

He now heads a drama company whose first season at the Garrick theatre in London has drawn rave reviews for its production of 'A Winter’s Tale', starring Dame Judi Dench and Branagh. Its cinema broadcast in November was – on that one night – the most popular film in Britain, he said, beating 'Hunger Games' and 'Spectre'. Forthcoming productions will see Sir Derek Jacobi as Mercutio in 'Romeo and Juliet'.

Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London, said that there are few people as inextricably linked with Shakespeare as Branagh: “He was instrumental in making Shakespeare popular again in the cinema. He’s very concerned to make Shakespeare accessible for new audiences … which is very much [our] key cornerstone.”

Film London’s chairman is David Parfitt, the Oscar-winning producer of 'Shakespeare in Love', with whom Branagh has now been reunited through this project, long after they collaborated on 'Henry V' and 'Much Ado About Nothing'. Although television fans of 'Sherlock Holmes' and 'Dr Who' flocked to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet and David Tennant’s Richard II, Branagh argued that audiences want to see the best actors rather than screen idols.

“Shakespeare is the real star,” he said. “People can get a little concerned that ‘star’ means commercial, or somehow means that some dilution has occurred. Dench stars in 'A Winter’s Tale', but she’s perhaps the greatest living Shakespearean actress.

“Back in 1600, [people] might have gone to see Richard Burbage in 'Hamlet' because they’d seen him in 'Macbeth'. It’s an entirely honourable tradition.” He added that there is also “no difference in the degree of seriousness, commitment or intent” that an actor like Tennant puts into 'Dr Who' or 'Richard II'.

Since 2009, almost 4 million people have experienced the National Theatre’s live broadcasts into cinemas worldwide. Cumberbatch’s 'Hamlet' took nearly £3m at UK cinemas alone. Emma Keith, NT Live’s producer, said that “the involvement of mainstream Hollywood-type talent definitely further lifts [sales]”.

John Wyver, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s director of screen productions, said that “a significant star unquestionably increases the cinema audience… by multiples” but that “these broadcasts are developing an audience”.

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