‘I Have an Emotional Attachment With This Place’
Stratford Herald, 4 May 2015
Pragnell Award winner, Knight of the Realm, and legendary actor and director Kenneth Branagh granted one interview when he visited Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday, 25th April.
The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald took that honour and I was to be the lucky interviewer. I was excited to be meeting such a fine actor, who has also become somewhat of a national treasure — but slightly anxious too.
Herald arts correspondent Gill Sutherland in conversation with Sir Kenneth Branagh. Photo: Mark Williamson.
We were given a strict 15 minutes with him: was it going to prove to be enough time for a proper chat? And do I call him Sir or what? I needn’t have worried on either count. “Hi, I’m Ken,” he beams, a massive chummy smile filling his face, as he outstretches his hand to me upon entering the wood-panelled drawing room of the Shakespeare Institute on Church Street, where we meet.
The 54-year-old was born in Belfast, the middle of three children, to working-class parents — his dad was a carpenter — but the family moved to Reading when he was nine to escape the troubles.
Ken has attributed his love of words and language to his Irish roots. This is evident in our chat. He talks so eloquently, almost like he’s reading from a brilliantly written script, and he’s happy to indulge me for well over half an hour.
The Pragnell Award is given to those encouraging the appreciation of Shakespeare, who would you nominate for the award?
“The roll call of recipients is pretty extraordinary, across a wide range of interesting people and groups — from people like Stanley Wells [the scholar and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust president], local families to actors.
“It’s an interesting acknowledgement that there’s an interrelated community and that is part of what keeps plays and theatres alive.
“That has to be proactive and acknowledged; I would be up for keeping that kind of lateral thinking. It makes for interesting and different voices talking about Shakespeare. So they seem to be doing a pretty good job, present company excepted.”
Do you get to Stratford and the RSC very often?
“I haven’t been for a little while but I always love coming. I last came about four years ago to see Greg’s African-influenced production of 'Julius Caesar', which was excellent, a wonderful production. I like to come back, there’s a lot of magic in the place for me. I had a very formative time here and have an emotional connection with the place.
When was your first encounter with Shakespeare?
“It was probably at school when I was about 13. A teacher played us Marvin Gavin [sic] and Diana Ross singing 'You Are Everything', it starts with lots of oohing and ahhing. He played it and said, “What does that noise remind you of?” None of us said anything. “Sex! It’s about sex. Who’s interested in sex?” A lot of red faces declined to answer. “We all are! So turn to 'Romeo and Juliet'. It’s about sex… and violence.” This was a great neon-lit ‘What?!’ moment for me.”
So you became a good student?
“Ha ha! I don’t know about that but I was certainly very passionate. There was an explosion in my heart and mind about Shakespeare’s writing. I’d see a phrase in a programme, like, ‘When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools’ [King Lear] and it stamped itself on my soul. I would write the words down and collect them. I was equally passionate about football [Ken is a big Spurs fan], but for me Shakespeare always had that familiar, practical and tangible quality, especially once I’d seen the plays performed.”
You’ve announced your new venture, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, performing a number of plays at the Garrick Theatre, London, from October. How did that come about?
“The company includes people I’ve worked with in the past. So it’s really the product of an extended period. Dame Judi and I have spoken about plays and projects that we could collaborate on over the years. Her knowledge and love of 'The Winter’s Tale' is a conversation we’ve been having for 30 years, and that history will bring a texture and density to us playing Leontes and Paulina. The simple ambition was to try and do some good work with people one admired. That includes Lily James and Richard Madden, who are in our 'Romeo and Juliet', who I worked with on the film 'Cinderella' [the Disney film released this year directed by Ken].”
You are a bit of a heartthrob to certain older women. Do you think about how you look or how your fans see you?
“I don’t think about it much beyond the normal human vanity of getting older and doing what you can or feel you must to look after yourself. I think for boys, and certainly for actors, the way life writes itself on your features is often very illuminating in the parts you play. The audience have lived their own complicated and interesting lives, and as they’ve watched you across time, they are happy to see a few lines and chins they have themselves reflected in an actor, they feel a little connection.”
Looking back to how you were as a young man, joining the RSC at 24, how have you changed as a performer?
“I remember the exciting months in Stratford for me were the quiet months, some might say the bleak months, from October to January, when the wind off the river makes everything damp. I found it rather misty and magical. It was amazing to stand on that balcony of that theatre, looking out while inside you are putting on a summery play like 'Love’s Labour’s Lost', while outside the wind is whistling in the willows across the water. It felt as though that energy between the town and the theatre was very vibrant and alive. So for me I always associated Stratford with creative energy and an excitement about what I do – and that has never gone away.”
For our nine-page Souvenir Special from last weekend’s Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations, including Sir Kenneth’s Pragnell Prize acceptance speech in full, last Thursday’s herald is still on sale. It also contains our new-look Focus magazine, featuring another great Brit, Dame Judi Dench in conversation with to Herald arts correspondent, Gill Sutherland.