Kenneth Branagh: Birthday Luncheon Speech
Shakespearean actor, director and award-winning international film star Sir Kenneth Branagh shared with 700 people at Stratford’s Birthday Luncheon how his love affair with the Bard began. His moving speech, on Saturday, is transcribed for our readers here. . .
The Independent, 27 April 2015
‘It is required you do awake your faith’ – these are Paulina’s words from 'A Winter’s Tale'. My faith in Shakespeare and in the theatre was awoken one midsummer’s morning in 1978 on the hard shoulder of the M40.
I was hitchhiking to this town and I was nervous. I was monstrously overburdened with a lot of camping equipment that I had purchased on tick from my mother’s Littlewoods catalogue and it was so heavy that when I tried to climb in to the high lorry cab that had kindly stopped for me, I simply fell backwards like a stone, which was a piece of physical comedy that I would later use for Benedict - but without the rucksack! So you will understand, therefore, that I was uncertain, in every sense, of what lay in road ahead.
I was 17 years old and for me at that time Stratford was a wonderland. So I walked around, my jaw open, surreptitiously touching old buildings and trying not to look odd, visiting everything that appeared to have a connection with the town’s most famous son and, yet for all my wanderings, returning time after time after time to the theatre, just staring at it from every possible angle. To gape, to dream to wonder.
Because, in those prehistoric days before the internet and when one was a shy mumbling teenager on the telephone, despite this new-found passion for acting, and when every hard-earned bit of cash from my Saturday job at Waitrose had to be carefully considered.
There was no pre-purchase of tickets. Instead lay the tantalising promise of the returns queue. And, after some hours and for the princely sum of £8, I gained admission to 'The Taming of the Shrew'.
In that spectacular production Christopher Sly, in the secret guise of Jonathan Price, appeared to be a real but agitated member of the public who stood very close to the stage as 7.30 grew near. Apparently he had a problem with his ticket. So he was becoming more angry and more unable to be nullified by a large group of remarkably familiar-looking ushers who were trying to calm him.
So, as they tried to escort him away he escaped their grasp, he jumped up on the stage and, literally started pulling the entire stage set down in an exoplosively effective fashion.
The audience went beserk. There were people standing, they were shouting, they were screaming, they were cheering him, they were even leaving. And six Nigerian businessmen sitting next to me made a particularly spectacular exit which involved physically clambering over me and racing for the aisle. I was left dazed on the floor next to a couple of other bewildered audience members, I had a visible footprint in the middle of my tee-shirt and, as I looked up, I became aware of the frenzied sound of the audience now turning from horror to delight and a lady Stratfordian of a certain age helped pick me up out of the aisle and, with the practised ease of the theatre-going veteran, said: ‘Don’t panic sonny, it’s only a play.’
My faith was assured.
The days that followed were golden in my youth. Once I had become a theatre-going veteran myself I worked up the courage to ask the house manager if I could look backstage. As I’d been haunting the returns queue every morning for days he kindly agreed. And as luck would have it, on that very night the same Jonathan Price walked across the stage just at that moment with friends of his - at last a real actor, close up on that stage, the very man who had sent the shrew off with such explosive gusto, looking out into the auditorium, that I already sensed to be filled with the ghosts and the voices of a larger Shakespearian family, many of whom have indeed appeared on the roll call of this Pragnell award.
And I think he must have thought me rather strange, this dreamy kid, just stood for such a very long time staring out into that thrilling darkness.
And then later, with the ever-patient house manager, I gorped at the detail of the hanging costumes of 'The Tempest' and similarly I communed at length at David Suchet’s trousers, he wasn’t in them I promise you!. They were all he wore as Caliban. And somehow staring at his muddy britches seemed to be one way of understanding great acting.
And so, in my tiny little tent hitched just up the road, I would pour over theatre programmes and I’d reflect on the other wonders of the day – like my first visit to The Dirty Duck, to watch mutely from behind a Coca Cola as more real actors did real actor things, like drinking real beer and telling real stories – or at least some real stories. I noticed this very striking girl who I had noticed had just left RADA and who had a tiny part in 'The Taming of the Shrew' but who magnetically scored in every second she was on stage. And I still have this pencilled note I’d written on the program that says ‘don’t forget this girl.’
And I spent a lifetime of theatre-going since, marvelling at the unforgettable Juliet Stevenson.
After four days I left Stratford but I never left Shakespeare, rather I carried him as a guide, as a faith, forever onward. And indeed a mere six years later when the whirligig of time had spun me through drama school, I went out into the world as a professional actor and I had cause to remember the wonder and the wildness of that first pilgrimage, the riots of that first evening and the way in which that RSC company started the 'Shrew' with a bang and not a whimper, and carrying it electrically through the evening – and the language which would flow from it here was Shakespeare as a faith in action. Modern, violent, messy, wondrous, human. It was an example that I took to heart when it came to my own first RSC acting audition and indeed I put my own faith in that very very quality of wildness and beauty and humanity and truth.
At stake was a place in the great 1984 season, a chance to gain a place in that august company. I thought, as I approached the audition, of that daft-looking kid arriving in Stratford like a bad advert for the boy scouts, I thought of the greatness I had witnessed on that hallowed stage, and as I stared out into a different, but equally thrilling darkness, I did everything I could to channel Harry Percy and his emotive exasperation as he explained to his monarch the truth behind his apparent refusal to comply with his king’s wishes. ……….
Thank God the RSC said ‘yes.’ And from that moment this town, this company and that theatre offered a faith in me which has been a humbling inspiration in all the many joyous years of Shakespeare which have followed.
So this has been very long way of conveying what a very great deal this means to me. So to the Pragnell family and to all who helped produce this wondrous event, to the good citizens of Stratford and to the RSC it has been a most glorious opportunity to say ‘I can no other answer make but thanks and thanks and ever thanks.’
Let me end, as I began, with 'A Winter’s Tale'. On an occasion of such splendour that celebrates the birth of Shakespeare, I concur with the old shepherd and I recall with fondness that sweet daft lad who walked out one midsummer’s morning. I was 17 and the world was young. That cherished day was the start of a golden journey which has brought me so much good fortune and happiness.
The old shepherd was right. ‘Tis a lucky day boy, and we’ll do good deeds on it.’
Let me with delight perform one of those good deeds and propose a toast. Please be upstanding ladies and gentlemen and raise your glasses to the theatre.