Don't Get Mad, Play Hamlet
Daily Telegraph, February 15,
by Hugo Davenport
In his new film, Kenneth Branagh
performs with terrifying fury. And the anger is real, he tells
WHAT is the quality least often
associated with Kenneth Branagh? Anger, probably. Self-deprecating,
positive, adventurous, hard-working, ambitious and, of course,
talented - all these adjectives are routinely trotted out. And
yet what journalists always want to know is how he feels now
about the split with Emma Thompson. Is he still smarting?
If they ask they find themselves
politely stonewalled. Branagh is the soul of articulate affability
when discussing his work; trespass flat-footed into the disordered
dressing-room of private emotion and you will find a guarded
Yes, he says blandly, he would
be delighted to work with Thompson again. No hard feelings. Soul-baring
isn't Branagh's style, except in character.
A more fruitful question, given
that his latest venture is a full-length cinematic Hamlet, concerns
the relationship between an actor's emotional state and his performance.
In the US, critical praise for the film, which opens here tomorrow,
has stressed its lucidity, vigour and breadth. Yet its submerged
power source is, without a doubt, anger. Veiled and transmuted
perhaps, but anger even so.
Hamlet is a terrific role to
play if you are feeling a bit betrayed or vengeful, even murderous.
So how could cheery, unpretentious Branagh make such a memorable
Hamlet? "Our Ken", to use the patronising phrase favoured
by so many profiles, has the actor's knack of sublimating.
"I think I'm perceived essentially
as a sunny chap who gets on with it," he says. "In
the past I've resisted giving too much of myself away. Or I've
decided, in an almost perverse way, that I'm not suddenly going
to be dark and brooding just because people don't think I've
got it in me."
He admits that it isn't always
possible to keep emotions in a locked cupboard, however professional
one's approach. "You can't pretend that you are incredibly
sussed and sorted if you are dealing with material that is inevitably
churning up in your own mind things that are very personal. It
just has more life in it - more painful and rather ugly life,
maybe, but it's alive.
"It has been a ghastly couple
of years; ghastly on a personal level. In the process of playing
this part I released into it absolutely everything one could
be as a human being. There's one shot where it even scares me
- the nunnery scene. When they saw the first cut, someone said,
'Are there any jollier bits? You're so angry in this: it's the
angriest Hamlet I've ever seen.' "
Aside from his personal life,
the other "ghastly" experience was the critical drubbing
received by the 1994 film Frankenstein, which Branagh directed
and starred in. "I think the whole experience of Frankenstein
was very salutary. I felt I'd had such a bashing. By the end
of it, you feel that somewhere you have changed. As a result,
I felt more relaxed about doing Hamlet, more open. I worry less
about how it will be received."
Once more donning both director's
cap and the costume of the leading man, Branagh has now brought
all three Shakespearean genres to the big screen: first, a blend
of heroics and implied anti-war sentiment in a history play,
Henry V; next, the Chiantishire sparkle and verbal duelling of
a comedy in Much Ado About Nothing; and now, after several prefatory
goes at the role on stage, the most problematic of the tragedies.
The film is done on the grand
scale, shot in 70mm at Blenheim Palace. A cavernous set of swivelling
mirrors conceals the festering morass of conspiracy and paranoia
in smaller chambers behind. The action is shifted to the mid-19th
century, on tenuous but defensible grounds, and Branagh once
more brings off his customary juxtaposition of British stalwarts
in principal roles with big Hollywood names in the smaller parts.
But what of the role itself:
what manner of Hamlet did he seek to project? Previous forays
into the role have left him well versed in the text and its physical
demands; thus he was able to throw himself into it in a full-blooded,
instinctive way, reserving his intellectual energies for the
demands of directing. Indeed, he says he actively shied away
from interpretive feedback from collaborators on set.
"We've not created a Hamlet
in whom we have a man disposed to be melancholy," he says.
"We've taken at face value everything that anyone else in
the play says about him - which is that he's positive, vibrant,
intellectually curious; someone who's popular with the populace,
who really ought to have been king. A Renaissance man.
"This is a man who, in the
'What a piece of work is man' speech, gives five instances of
clinical depression that he is suffering from; it's almost a
textbook situation. But the point is, he's not normally like
this. He's in this mood because he is in mourning for his father
and his mother has married his uncle within one month of the
death. So this is a Hamlet who is not mad.
"I also think he is not
indecisive. I disagree with Olivier's thing at the beginning
of his film: 'This is the story of a man who could not make up
his mind.' From the moment his father tells him of his murder,
he decides he must act.
"What he then has to deal
with is his inability to act. Somewhere in Hamlet - and I think
we can all identify with this - there's a basic moral revulsion
for the idea that an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is the
right way to resolve things."
If such a reading chimes with
Branagh's perceived temperament, it makes him heir to a long
tradition of actors revealing themselves through the role. "Somebody
once described it as the greatest straight part ever written,
because there's no make-up, no limp, no mask to hide behind.
It's a very nakedly exposing role, but one from which you can
learn a great deal as an actor; a sort of X-ray part.
"You're a vessel for Hamlet;
but Hamlet is also a vessel for you. He's the most complex human
being written in dramatic literature. And if you're playing it
properly, Hamlet is the Hamlet you are at that moment; the culmination
of wherever you've got to, as well as of your familiarity with
"I find his struggle, his
journey through the play, feels very contemporary. When I go
to bookshops, I see shelves full of 'How to Love Yourself', 'How
to Help Yourself', 'Seventeen Ways to Discover the Baby in You'
- we're forever looking for the secret, some way of accepting
that life is a rocky road, a bit of a tricky business."
So there you have it. Strange
process, acting - part concealment, part self-revelation. Sometimes
the appearance of offstage candour is merely the mask for a deeper
strategy of disguise. Only the best actors, like Branagh, really
understand how make-believe can also be the truest conduit to
their own feelings, and so to ours.
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