Kenneth Branagh: The Invention of Hamlet
Mr. Kenneth Branagh's Fifty Years
Original article in Italian, at Cineclandestino
The importance of being (un)faithful
“Shakespeare wrote for the theatre, for his audience; to be performed and to sell tickets. For this reason, it is as if he was writing for the cinema. His strength was certainly in his use of language, which was extremely imaginative, abstract, rhythmic and musical. But his genius also lay in his construction of plots and creation of characters: his themes did not shy away from anything, ranging from extraordinary dramatic effects to highly perplexing and unlikely intrigues. His tales were of flesh and blood, sound and fury. The cinema has had a long-standing love affair with Shakespeare: not a decade has passed without some imposing, often monstrous Shakespearian giant appearing on the scene. There is no genre of film that has not flirted at least once, with a story inspired by Shakespeare. There has been no time of disturbance, innovation, or cultural, political and social change that has failed to be reflected in one of his characters and plots.”These are amongst the insights that Emanuela Martini gives us in her work Ombre che camminano. Shakespeare al cinema.
But how is it possible to represent Shakespeare in the cinema, given the clearly theatrical nature of the original dramatic text?
André Bazin dismisses “filmed theatre” in favour of “cinematographic theatre”: that is to say, a type of cinematic device which deliberately makes us aware of its intrusion on the scene, and indeed declares it openly. Bazin commends Laurence Olivier who succeeded in eliminating the idea that realism is in antithesis to theatrical illusion. The charisma of the actor, his grace and amazing acting skill, enabled him to strike an almost dream-like bargain with the audience, and left him free to override the conventions, whether on stage or in film. Because of the human and artistic drive to tell a “story”, such as the story of Henry, of Hamlet or of the terrible Richard - who uses his charm to seduce the widow of the man who he himself has stabbed to death - there is an implicit need for the actor/director to cut and select the material, and to adapt the tale to the medium of cinema.
Nevertheless, the true essence of these men remains in place: men who are much more than characters, who exude vitality with every verse. This is how Shakespeare has described them in his writing, and how we imagine he would wish to see them portrayed.
Like a traditional teller of tales, the recognized descendant of minstrels and troubadours, he ransacks memories from the collective consciousness to pass on to future generations. In this way, Olivier, Welles, McKellen, Pacino, Luhrmann and Branagh all plunder and violate the original texts in order to offer it as a gift to us again. And again. And again...
To Kenneth Branagh, thanks for everything (to be continued)
It all began in 1904, with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, or better many years later, in Belfast, where Kenneth Branagh was born on December 10, 1960, second of three siblings, in a Protestant family of the Irish working class. A step back is required, though, as the History that becomes story and then History again, thanks to the human genius handed down from talent to talent, was born long before, in the England of the Virgin Queen and James Stuart I, who was obsessed by witches. Those were the glorious years of William Shakespeare without which Ken wouldn’t be Ken and we wouldn’t know who we are (pointless herewith the analysis of any storiographical and biographical discussion on the playwright from Stratford Upon Avon).
In 1969 the Branagh Family (for the Italian reader, just drop the final gh to pronounce the name correctly) went looking for better working opportunities and moved to Reading, in Berkshire, celebrated by Oscar Wilde in his Prison Ballad. A very young Kenneth learnt to modify his accent according to the situations, in a bold and yet tender effort typical of the child seeking integration; articulating the clear English of the City in school, speaking the familiar and re-assuring Irish at home, as he himself confessed to Noreen Taylor, Times journalist and mother of Branagh’s "Love's Labours Lost" actress, Natascha McElhone.
"I feel Irish. I don't think you can take Belfast out of the boy. I came from the kind of street where everyone knew everyone else. Surrounded by dozens of cousins and friends, it was like living with a large extended family. Maybe that's why I was drawn to the theatre, as another way of belonging to a large family. Then we had to leave Belfast and maybe that's what sowed the seeds of discord. I was nine and I remember quickly adopting an English accent for school, while keeping the Irish one for home. Being Irish, I'd always had this love of words, although I hadn't a clue how to become an actor. Working class families tend not to be too in touch with such worlds. It was a teacher in the sixth form who told me, after I'd joined the drama society, that I had something and suggested I might try for drama school." The Times, 03/15/2000, by Noreen TaylorThe true brainwave took place in Spring 1977 in the New Theatre in Oxford, recalls Sir Derek Jacobi with affection, presenting Kenneth Branagh a Golden Quill Award, the youngest actor to ever receive such a prize. It took place in a moment when the fair-haired Belfastian still hadn’t decided whether to be a journalist, or a footballer... or maybe an actor. Jacobi’s Hamlet marked his professional (and not only professional) future. The Academy of Dramatic Art followed, but not any ordinary academy, Kenneth was educated at the RADA – Royal Academy of Dramatic Art - one of the most prestigious theatrical institutions, founded in 1904 by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, as cited at the beginning of this essay.
Talented, very talented, blessed by a crystalline genius (the play on words with the protagonist of "Much Ado About Nothing" is such only in Italian!), Kenneth Branagh’s career took off immediately, even though he amusedly remembers the reaction of Hugh Crutwell – director of RADA at the time, his assiduous collaborator today; to a layman’s ears it would sound like an interminable series of “no”!
More magnanimous, Sir John Gielgud, the best Hamlet according to Harold Bloom, a monument of the theatre before whom Branagh confessed to having the shivers. Gielgud limited himself to giving him some pieces of advice about a not-so-brilliant performance and to noting how fast the disciple was in understanding the mellifluous reprimand.
They understood each other (nearly) immediately Sir John and Kenneth, the latter doing a truer than truth impression of the former, so they wanted to work together on the short film "Swan Song" (1992), by Anton Chekhov, directed by Branagh, starring Gielgud and another veteran of the British scenes, Richard Briers.
Before completing his education – Ken graduated in 1981 – he experienced the grind of double-jobbing: in the theatre as the Prince of Denmark and for BBC in Graham Reid’s drama "Too Late to Talk to Billy", filmed in his home town, Belfast.
Branagh’s career took off in a definite and steady way with the role of Judd in "Another Country", for which he was awarded most promising actor of the British theatre by the “Society of West End Theatres” and best emerging actor by “Plays and Players”.
Ian McKellen perfectly remembers how he was struck by the young actor:
“When I first saw Kenneth Branagh on stage in Another Country he looked about 13. His acting was hugely impressive but I thought it might just be a fluke. He wouldn't be the first young actor to triumph in a tailor-made part. My generation cling to memories of their own apprentice years in repertory theatre where we painfully learnt the craft. I, for one, was loathe to accept that some actors don't need a period of apprenticeship and self-discovery, yet Kenneth seemed to spring from the cradle, or at least from drama school, fully-formed, his prodigious technique and imagination already synchronised and ready for anything”.From the first successes to being recruited by the Royal Shakespeare Company was but a short step, as if nothing else could be denied to Branagh’s acknowledged and admired talent (the far-seeing English press permitting...). Those were the years of "Henry V", directed by Adrian Noble, of Laertes in Ron Daniels’ "Hamlet", of "Love’s Labour Lost" and Louise Pages’ drama, "Golden Girls", both directed by Barry Kyle.
It was also the time of experimentation and personal research: he made his debut in Newcastle still for the RSC, with his one-act play "Tell Me Honestly" and by the end of 1985 he left the renowned but strictly structured English drama society to look for inspiration and luck elsewhere.
He worked in TV productions such as "Coming Through", in which he played D.H. Lawrence, and "Ghosts" by Ibsen, together with Judy Dench, Natasha Richardson and Michael Gambon. He was directed by Clare Peploe, current spouse of Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, in "High Season" and accomplished the ambitious project of both directing and starring "Romeo and Juliet", playing at the Lyric Theatre of Hammersmith, from July to September 1986.
In April 1987, after a period of strenuous work for the television that led to meeting a beautiful actress named Emma Thompson, among other things, Kenneth Branagh and his colleague David Parfitt founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, whose first production on stage in Hammersmith was a drama written by Branagh himself, "Public Enemy".
The rising fame of the young performer, his likeable self-assured boldness, and his unique talent won him the esteem and support of illustrious names of the British Theatre, such as Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan, involved in directing texts like "Much Ado About Nothing", "Hamlet" and "As You Like It" for the newly created company.
"Look Back in Anger" by John Osborne followed, also directed by Judi Dench, then came the Shakespearean works directed by Branagh, in which he also played: "King Lear" where he played the role of Edgar and "Midsummer Night’s Dream", where he was Quince, one of the irresistible “mechanicals”.
It was real success for Kenneth and the RTC, complete with a world tour – from Los Angeles to the Dominion Theatre in London – and an autobiography, Beginning, written with the aim of raising funds for future projects.
In the British Theatrical Press the Branster - as he was fondly renamed by his friend Stephen Fry, was either appointed heir of Sir Laurence Olivier, probably according to some kind of weather forecasting method, or crazy megalomaniac, blinded by an unrestrained ego, all before turning thirty years old. It is well known that Branagh never really cared about all this, as Fry recounted during the Gielgud Award Ceremony:
"Darling!", he said, "people who read and listen to reviewers in Time Out constitute point nought nought one percent of the population. If you're worried about what reviewers are thinking, you're allowing them to dictate to you. If you really have contempt for them have some memory that nobody else cares about what reviewers think.”Stephen Fry went on to reveal that he had understood what had led Ken to a Virgilian “look and pass on” attitude, beyond natural regret. The person writing this is less judicious and regrets the coarse reviews, empirically unfounded, from which at times one is not spared even across the Channel. Therefore we wish to say our piece about the best living Shakespearean actor, without wanting to label this marvellous union between class and acting skill into any rigid category; we shall try, dropping any insane intention of exhaustiveness, guided by fascination and love that will take us to a land, where, we hope, Ken would like us to get to... the land of Shakespeare, of "Hamlet", in particular.
"Hamlet" From Theatre to Cinema: the Question of Language
“Does an author need the services of pantomime? Certainly not. The readers themselves can get up on the stage, take on the parts and read their favourite author's dialogue out loud to the public. This is what is called a 'harmoniously recited work'. The reader-cum-actor is immediately given a name and a new term is coined – 'an intelligent actor'. The deathly silence of a library reigns over the audience. The onlookers doze. This stillness and solemnity is only appropriate in a library setting.”So wrote Mejerchold in his essay “The Farce”, vehemently underlining the specificity of theatrical language as a separate linguistic form, such as that of the cinema, as Pier Paolo Pasolini who spoke of “cinemes” in place of “phonemes” would have attested.
Literature and theatre, the former being multi-code and the latter polysemic, draw on natural language to resemanticize it according to their own, specific purposes. Purposes which in theatre, and also in cinema in a certain, different way, veer decisively towards the realm of action, performance possibilities and artistic language crea(c)tivity.
William Shakespeare, probably the greatest author of Western theatre, is no exception, and if nothing detracts from the extremely high artistic value of his works as literary texts, then his masterpieces can above all and inextricably be considered performed texts. Shakespeare transforms his characters into another form of humanity, that of the actor, which the dramatist from Stratford-upon-Avon knows personally, and he constructs the mise-en-scene without the need for any stage directions or other indications outside of the dialogue.
It is precisely in a Hamlet-esque - in its true sense - “speaking the speech” that the best cinematic translations of Hamlet have been based on: the theatrical hic et nunc and the cinematic concept of “another place”, a peculiarity of the oneiric and evocative seventh art, are brought together in the power of the Shakespearean dramatic word.
That is what Olivier achieved, and, as we will see, so did Branagh in his work dated 1996.
As James Joyce would say, Kenneth Branagh is undoubtedly a lunatic for whom Shakespeare is the preferred hunting ground, yet never without a solid criterion able to adapt to its “means of transport”, to the use of the dramatic text as film material, keeping its intrinsic deep theatrical nature.
Like the Dublin author, Branagh cleverly mingled human attitude to distraction and told of a modern Ulysses, still aiming to explore Hamlet; thus Branagh held onto the essence of Henry, Benedick, Iago, Berowne even when he seemed to be doing something else, joking with the audience, winking at show business or at the theatre of his fathers, be they Larry Olivier or Orson Welles: “less doing, more being”, but also quoting Peter Brook, “you don’t do something unless there’s something that makes you do it”.
Kenneth Branagh is obviously a man of great culture, not only in terms of the theatrical, and the assortment of assonances and references, in the Shakespearean context, is so massive and varied that it is hard to know whether it is better to forget about them when trying to trace the outline of his bardolater incursions into the cinema.
Since we don’t know about Hamlet (nor, in the end, about Henry, Benedick or Iago) more than what is fair to know about the most intimate meandering of the soul and of human intellect, the temptation is to look at illustrious exegetes: at Harold Bloom, at Jan Kott, at James Joyce himself, who disseminated traces of the Bard in his greatest and best-known piece of work. If intellectual, tormented and rebellious Stephen Dedalus can be compared to the Prince of Denmark, Leopold Bloom embodies William Shakespeare himself, putative and “spiritual” father of Dedalus, blood father to his son, Rudy who died at eleven days, but who would have been eleven years old at the time of narration. Same tragic fate as Hamnet, only son of the Elizabethan playwright.
“Usurped” is the term that concludes the first chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, dedicated to the character of Dedalus/Hamlet, and usurped is the Kingdom that triggers the plot of the Shakespearean tragedy; usurped by a disloyal mother/step-mother and a treacherous uncle. “Question” is however the word, as suggested by Harold Bloom, most widely used in the 3880 lines of the final draft of "Hamlet". It is advisable to keep this in mind, since the role of doubt, of the frustrated yearning for knowledge, or of the impossibility of deeply investigating one’s doubts and one’s fears recur in Branagh’s filmography, more often and more intensely than one might imagine.
We were quoting Harold Bloom and we could add – as a gloss to a long but non-exhaustive introduction, the modernizing thrust of an author such as Jan Kott, who read Shakespeare as a contemporary author and adopted, as fact, once and for all, his eternal relevance as a researcher of the Human, with roles assigned by their era, by the epochs, and not by the author.
It was 1961 when Kott noticed, about 15 years before the well-known essay by Michel Foucault, that the key words in "Hamlet" are “watch” and “enquire”.
There are these and a thousand other critical interpretations (how can one forget the peremptory judgement by T.S. Eliot in Elizabethan Essays, where he decreed the substantial artistic failure of "Hamlet" and the Shakespeare's own crisis in dealing with an excessive character compared to the facts that surround him); they are all valid (nearly all valid, at this point), and all somehow useful for studying the one who, as he is forcefully described by Harold Goddard, is a Falstaff of himself.
Kenneth Branagh, his biography and common sense tell us, used to know Hamlet very well. He knew the drama and played the role of the Danish Prince in university plays and real theatrical productions, like the one with Royal Shakespeare Company, where, however, he played Laertes. He had known Hamlet since his adolescence, when he fell in love with Derek Jacobi’s performance and decided he would become an actor. He would certainly have known the numerous and often contradictory critical inferences, as well as the illustrious film precedents (and probably at least one television adaptation, the BBC production "Hamlet at Elsinore" by Saville): Lubitsch, Tony Richardson and obviously Olivier and his oedipal interpretation.
There is a solipsistic dimension to the Hamlet of Sir Laurence, clinging to his doubt and to a distressing immobility, as suggested by Stefano Cocci who proposes the figurative comparison with the painting Odysseo und Kalypso by Böcklin. Only the final flight over Claudius’ terror will free him from the ideal chains of thought and will resolve doubt into concrete action, turning assertive reflection into heroic reconquest.
If we can go so far as attempting an (impossible) comparison, Olivier’s Hamlet is to Branagh’s Hamlet as John Ford is to Sam Peckinpah (and not only because of the use of slow motion). In fact, there is not only a chronological the distance between the two transpositions, the first from 1948, still imbued with the ruins and distruction of the Second World War, the second filmed in 1996: what changes is the horizon, with the story disrupted by the end of utopia and the rise of a new “Leopardian” age (The Leopard, 1958, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa), at times farcical in its perpetual recurring, where power legitimizes itself in a vicious spiral of merely formal transformation, that changes everything to leave everything unchanged.
Branagh is a man of the theatre, above all, a man of action, and "Hamlet", his magnificent obsession all along. After all, Ken had already experienced, six years earlier, a baptism by fire of the Bard in the cinema, when he made Derek Jacobi move, in modern clothes, among cinematic devices and machinery. The actor/chorus opens the door/raises the curtain over the English Court: "Henry V" can begin. The theatre submerges into cinema and together they tell us a story.
So, how to tell the story of the “Mona Lisa of Western Literature”? Branagh began by noticing that every human effort to explain Hamlet would be pointless (hence the necessity of integral transposition), but he didn’t give up the idea of choosing, devoting himself to the modest and wise choice of multiplicity, of complexity. He abandoned all the decadent psychoanalytical interpretations of the past, to allow the self-same Shakespearean verses carry him along Hamlet’s recesses.
This is clearly shown in the famous to be or not to be scene, recited knowing that Claudius, or Polonius - finally represented as a skilled courtier - or both, are watching. The young Prince talks facing a mirror, that reflects him back face-to-face and by means of the intersection of images cast back by the many mirrors that fill the room. Hamlet forges a universe in which he envelopes and shakes the entire universe of Elsinore, which would have him insane: the dagger waved in front of the mirror during the monologue, makes Claudius tremble, not safe from the force of those words, even though protected by the glass barrier.
Dramaturgically linked to the previous scene (the word is the driving force of the action: as a sound man of the theatre, Branagh never fails), with a paradoxically rare appearance in the traditional Shakespearean transpositions, the spurious soliloquy of Hamlet here is not a demonstration of acting virtuosity nor recitative climax: Hamlet creates a world where he thinks, speaks and behaves consistently. Branagh himself, when interviewed about his work, warned against the distraction of some apparently incidental verses. It is no accident that only a gravedigger will stand up to the prince of intellect and speech...
The skull, with its by now nearly archetypal value, disappears, but the character of the fool, Yorick, remains, evoked in his past daily life through the cinematic device of the flashback.
Filmed in 70mm (the format of a "colossal" film, but also distributed in a reduced version, alas, by the distributor, Castle Rock Entertainment) Branagh’s "Hamlet" abandons the usual emaciated touchiness of the Prince and the oppressive stage atmosphere to bring the action into the nineteenth century, “an era of history when borders change and the map of Europe is entirely re-designed”, as the actor and director explained, and to restore a corporeal young man (again in flashback we witness his passionate affair with Ophelia), vivid and not insane.
Todd-AO format, with double the emulsion than the more common 35mm, guarantees excellent chromatic yield (the stage scenery by Tim Harvey is obviously oriented towards luxurious opulence) and, at the same time, the possibility of photographically enhancing bodily and furnishing features, calibrating them stylistically for each character: lascivious and undulating for Gertrude, sumptuous and kingly – of a kingdom imbued with blood – for Claudius, plunged into a malevolently Dionysian atmosphere.
Cinema and theatre, theatre and then again cinema, skillfully balanced between great British Shakespearean actors and co-starring US actors of undisputable bravura, and with the use of devices that only the cinematic technique provides: slow-motion and the flashback, the latter inserted as a means to open and emphasize the verse. The potential of motion-pictures, descendant of the magic lantern and favourite hive of the post-modern imagination, is used by Kenneth Branagh as a con-text (it accompanies the text) to recreate a meaningful original source, evoked by the verse.
Up to the last scene, on the black and white chessboard floor of the palace, enhanced by 70mm, which always looks too large for the very small characters (Did these bones cost no more the breeding,/ but to play at loggats with ‘em?).
It is a carnage.
The circle closes where it opened, on the Hamlet inscription at the foot of the statue of the old king, now knocked down by the new rulers: impossible not to turns one’s thoughts – after the fact – to a similar scene of more recent times.
However, Shakespeare has given us a five line glimmer of hope, pronounced by Horatio:
Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
The rest, we know, is silence.
What is missing from this brief excursus? Everything.
From the most intimate and personal works, such as "Peter’s Friends" and "In the Bleak Midwinter", the latter also curiously known by its second American title, "A Midwinter’s Tale", to the Shakespearean masterpieces, "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing". From the epic about the monster asserting the legitimacy of its existence, "Frankenstein", to the jewels of his artistic maturity, "The Magic Flute", English translation by the great Fry of the original libretto - "Die Zauberflöte" - by Emanuel Schikaneder and "Love Labour’s Lost", Shakespeare contaminated by music.
The beautiful "Sleuth" is missing, remake of the one by Mankiewicz and game for two between Michael Caine and Jude Law, with a dramatic score, figuratively speaking, by Harold Pinter.
Missing are also the performances as an actor and not as a director, his skilful brushwork recognizable in Altman’s "The Gingerbread Man", in Allen’s "Celebrity", in Parker’s "Othello" and works by other authors. The theatre is missing, place of preference where Branagh’s talent exploded, as in the splendid "Richard III" in the Crucible Theatre, directed by Michael Grandage, where our man moves sardonically and cruelly around the scene, which is literally overwhelmed by his presence as malicious seducer and by an unusual apparatus theraputic, designed to correct his deformity; or "Edmond", contemporary theatre by David Mamet, where Branagh substitutes the Shakespearean strategist with a common “clockwork” man.
Missing are the vanished projects, like "Amadeus" by Milos Forman that Kenneth should have performed and those long sought after and yet to be fulfilled (but we are counting on it!!!), such as the Scottish Play of which I do not even dare pronounce the name...
The last – in fieri – work is missing, the Marvel inspired "Thor".
All this and a lot more is missing.
Special thanks to Renata, webmaster of "www.branaghcompendium.com", inexhaustible source of news, to all Ken-friends, and to Roberto Scarpa, who infuses every word with love for the theatre.