The Shakespeare Guy
Toronto Sun December 23, 1996
by Bruce Kirkland
Director Kenneth Branagh lives
up to his reputation
Some stranger in a strange land
beetled over to Kenneth Branagh at an airport recently to buttonhole
the Irish-born, English-raised actor-director.
"Hey," he bellowed
at the young superstar. "You're the Shakespeare guy! Right?"
At 36, Branagh is already venerated
for his performances in, and direction of, Shakespearean roles
on stage, radio and film. His 1988 triumph, Henry V, is credited
with launching the Shakespeare revival in cinema. Since then,
he has brought Much Ado About Nothing to the screen and created
A Midwinter's Tale, a whimsical contemporary movie about bad
actors putting on a Christmas Hamlet.
On Christmas Day, Branagh puts
on his own Hamlet. His monumental, four-hour, full-text version
of Hamlet opens in Toronto with an all-star support cast including
Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, Kate Winslet,
Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and even Gerard Depardieu.
If it is confining to be known
as "the Shakespeare guy," says Branagh, "there
are worse things to be confined by!"
Like shoulder problems. During
his Toronto visit to promote Hamlet - part of a whirlwind tour
of North America to drum up business for one of the longest movies
ever made - Branagh popped his shoulder out of alignment and
went into painful muscle spasms. His public relations team, led
by Toronto's Virginia Kelly, quickly found a chiropractor to
work him back into good enough shape to survive a day of interviews.
Putting the pain aside for my
interview - the last before treatment - Branagh soldiers on,
joy dancing in his eyes about the work he and his colleagues
"Love it or hate it,"
he muses, "it's an event. I think it's great entertainment,
for want of a better word. It has all the elements you might
wish for in a compelling story. It goes from murder to potential
incest to suicide to madness to true love, with tragic consequences,
and it's a funny movie.
"It's also the only time
in the history of cinema, if you want to lard it with portentous
phrases, that you'll see the full-length version of one of the
great human achievements in art. I think Shakespeare's Hamlet
is a masterpiece that operates on so many levels and yet remains
a mysterious, elusive thing."
Branagh, who has performed as
the troubled prince of Denmark somewhere between 200 and 300
times, considers his film the culmination of a process that started
at the age of 15 when he saw, and was profoundly moved by, Derek
Jacobi performing as Hamlet (Jacobi plays Claudius here).
"I feel like someone who
is trying to lay it out in its full form to allow, as much as
possible, the play's mysteries to work on people. I don't feel
any obligation to understand it fully myself."
Without the full four hours,
and his reinventions - such as the richly colorful 19th-century
setting wiping away the gothic gloom of many past productions
- the true power of Hamlet would be lost, says Branagh.
"The story is not just about
one man. There is an ensemble there. It is at least about two
families who are extinct by the end of the play. And we wanted
to make this important point, that there are these recognizable
human problems and frailties of individuals in positions of power,
which ultimately and surprisingly and ironically and awfully
affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of other people. So,
by the end of the play, the political map is redrawn and there
is a new ruler on the throne. And all of this is attributable,
some people would say, to a communication problem between a mother
For Branagh, Hamlet is as contemporary
as Oprah. "I think Shakespeare was perennially interested
in people who are only flesh and blood. We're interested in the
backstage lives of the rich, famous and powerful. We just want
to know everything about them and we're thrilled when we know
that they're just as frail and have all the same insecurities
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