Making the Riches of the Bard Accessible

Buffalo News, June 13 1993
by Jeff Simon

No, he is not Laurence Olivier, nor was he meant to be. He isn't Orson Welles, either. He'd have to eat pate de foie gras and chocolate truffles for five years straight to come anywhere close. Besides, he seems entirely too disciplined and well-adjusted to be possessed of Welles' lovable charlatanry and slovenly genius.

Kenneth Branagh is still the only living Shakespearian actor/filmmaker in the English language, and he's more than good enough. In fact, given the era he lives in, he has been close to spectacular. In two films now -- his big, bloody, extraordinarily cinematic "Henry V" and his fleshy, celebratory "Much Ado About Nothing" (which opens in Buffalo next week) -- he has single-handedly re-created a vanished and never entirely hardy film genre: the Shakespearian film.

If he and his wife -- Oscar winner Emma Thompson -- are often seen these days to have something of the cachet of Olivier and Vivien Leigh, they are definitely the rowdy jeans-and-beer version.

In a profile of Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Tynan once enumerated those things "everyone has always meant by the phrase 'great actor':"

"A) Complete physical relaxation. B) Powerful physical magnetism. C) Commanding eyes that are seen at the back of the gallery. D) A commanding voice that is audible without effort at the back of the gallery. E) Superb timing which includes the capacity to make the verse swing. F) chutzpah -- the untranslatable Jewish word that means cool nerve and outrageous effrontery combined, and G) the ability to communicate a sense of danger."

From what we can tell from his films, Branagh has an abundance of F, more than enough of A, D and E, and, possibly, a passable measure of B and C (though unless one saw him in a theater, one would never know). What he lacks -- totally -- is G.

That actorly lack is moviedom's gain. It is his reassuring steadiness, no doubt, that has given him money to work with and put him in a position to make his films.

Though his wife's career has blazed on her own, an oddity of Branagh's is that Thompson has been in all four of the films he has both directed and starred in -- "Henry V," "Peter's Friend," "Dead Again" and "Much Ado About Nothing." He says the garden-variety aches and pains found in all marriages have never impinged on their work together.

"Touch wood, we've kept it out of work so far. The times we've worked together, we've been very happy. It's been very nice. We enjoy it. If it did get a little testy, we wouldn't do it. In fact, you know, people assume that because we're in each other's company so much that we'd drive each other potty. In fact, the process of directing means that you're not with the actors as much as you'd be if you were just acting. When we're working together, we actually enjoy seeing each other at the end of the day. To date, it's been fine. If it started getting difficult, we'd just stop working together."

Branagh discussed his life, singular calling and widely acclaimed version of "Much Ado About Nothing" recently on the phone from Los Angeles. The conversation that follows was clearly one in a rather lengthy series that he had conducted that day. He was tired but no less verbal and articulate for all that. "We've moved around a little," he said, "which actually helps. You don't need a change of people or questions, you just need a change of scenery."

"Much Ado About Nothing" is nothing if not an act of major-league chutzpah. His cachet among his fellow actors is such that he was able to get such American box office presences as Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton to join him, his wife and Robert Sean Leonard to film it in the ancient Italian villa where, according to legend, Leonardo painted the "Mona Lisa."

In his introduction to the shooting script, he freely scorns the Shakespearian acting tradition of "incomprehensible booming and fruity-voiced declamation." He is nothing if not skeptical of his fellow Brits.

"I just resist the sort of theatrical, over-rhetorical stuff, that sort of implicit assumption that we know best or do best when it comes to acting -- maybe because it engenders a certain antipathy from other nations or indeed intimidates them in a way that seems completely unnecessary and doesn't do us much good. There is a slight superiority about our theatrical tradition and stuff that we should just forget about. It stops it from being real, and I think that's the goal -- to be real and truthful in whatever one does, whether it's Shakespeare or modern movies or whatever. It's just something I've always felt strongly about. When I've seen that kind of acting, it just hasn't meant much to me. And yet it amazes me that people kind of fall for it.

"I'm conscious of a privileged position and I'm conscious also of being part of a very particular tradition. There's no denying I've done a lot of work in the so-called classical repertoire. It's just that I think that our job is to communicate and to communicate to as many people who are to hear it and not just see it as some sort of elitist thing. I just feel that desire to communicate is often forgotten amongst actors, and as Brits we can slide into that so easily. It's a bit smug, I suppose. I've certainly been guilty of that. One works hard not to do it.

"I don't think people try and be insincere. I don't think people try and be false or whatever, but it's just we can easily fall back into it."

He knows that there are those who will see any sort of attempt at popularizing Shakespeare as despoiling or debasement.

But "I just don't understand what people mean by that -- especially in terms of Shakespeare. His plays are there in libraries and bookshelves all over the world. In doing a film like 'Much Ado,' you take a subjective view of how, in a different medium than the one it was intended for -- you convey what you see as the essence or the spirit of the play and you make the concessions you make to the medium you're working in -- perhaps making it shorter, tighter and having a different kind of film storytelling logic. But you're not burning copies of the play. You're simply making it alive. You're reminding people that it is drama, not just literature but drama meant to be acted. For a lot of people who can't afford the theater -- or who don't have a theater that's producing this kind of work near them -- it's a way for them to see it.

"There are untold riches in there, but I think people have a right to have it made available to them. If they see the film and don't like it, they can just as easily read the play. Or indeed not go and see the film. What I've never tried to claim is that this is the definitive version of 'Much Ado About Nothing.' This is a film of 'Much Ado About Nothing,' to allow people to make up their own minds about Shakespeare.

"I think the problem for purists is when they ascribe to people like me motives that simply aren't there. One is not trying to get up on a soapbox. One is trying to -- at the most basic level -- entertain.

"I had a spat with an academic just the other week who lambasted me -- in my presence (indeed, to my face) -- because I had cut a line which she regarded as critical to, it turned out, an essay she had written about the play, which she referred to as 'my play.' In the face of that kind of thing I've got to laugh, really. I'm afraid she'll find that it isn't any more her play than it is my play."

He insists that the casting of Washington, Keaton and Reeves was not made with one eye on the box office. "I would have cast those parts with non-Brits regardless. I just wanted a different accent and tone and voice and a different manner in there. I just wanted to blow some cobwebs off this thing. I also wanted some stimulus for me and my actors who had all worked together for a few years. I just wanted to make sure we weren't getting too settled into a kind of pattern. I wanted us to be challenged a bit. I wanted different sounds. I didn't want it all to be soft-voiced and mellow and English."

He admits that his Americans had some anxiety about dealing Shakespearian language.

"Welllll, we did talk about that up front. I did make clear that I wanted to do two things: one, to be technically adroit, to have people speak crisply and clearly and have people understand what they're saying. Also, the primary objective is to be as real as possible. I did work with Keanu before we went to Italy (to shoot the film). I had some sessions with him to work on his voice a bit. With Michael Keaton and Denzel, we had a very intense week of rehearsal where we kind of worked on all of that. It was a bit of a crash course, but enough for them to feel comfortable so they'd know it was something for them to be aware of but not to feel dominated by. I think they responded very well to that."

Back in his introduction to the script, Branagh wrote: "The opening images for this film of 'Much Ado About Nothing' came to me during the actual stage performance of the play, when I have to confess my concentration wandered. I was playing Benedick in a beautiful production directed by Dame Judi Dench on a U.K. tour. One night during Balthasar's song 'Sigh No More, My Ladies,' the title sequence of this film played over and over in my mind: heat haze and dust, grapes and horseflesh, and a nod to 'The Magnificent Seven.' "

Such movie images occur to him often when he performs, he says. "You get into this kind of reverie. God knows you shouldn't. It's as if the play leaves the theater and suddenly you're outside. You're in the movie of it. I felt that a lot with 'Much Ado.' I felt always conscious of the walls of the theater creaking. Especially at the end. I always wanted to get high, high up at the end of the play. I wanted a flourish that transported the audience high up above and away and sort of closed the book on this particular fairy tale. That's the sort of image I tried to get with the last shot of the movie."

He has dreamed up others while performing.

"I've got sort of an ongoing shooting script of 'King Lear' in my head. 'Twelfth Night' as well. 'Love's Labour's Lost.' And, indeed, 'Hamlet.' 'Twelfth Night' I see as beginning with the storm -- the storm that we never see at the beginning. I imagine beginning with that and throwing ourselves into the visceral -- up and down, in and out, an awful storm. It's the title sequence. We see Viola and Sebastian being parted from each other. We see the drama -- he's tied to a mast, it breaks and he's in the water, she can't get to him. The sailor who eventually has the scene with her in the second scene of the play, rescues her. And out of all that chaos, some sort of dissolve or something to a very bleak beach. And there she is wet. We start with that scene rather than with the first scene of the play and have her say, 'What country friend is this?' And the soldier says, 'This is Illyria, lady,' and have the camera rise up over her and across a bank and to a kind of fairy tale world of snow-covered palaces. And there would be Illyria.

"So we go from the storm to this kind of fairy-tale world. That's a kind of rough, rough, rough beginning of 'Twelfth Night' which involves both putting a scene that's not in the play up front and then inverting the first two scenes of the play."

Clearly, Branagh's is an inherently cinematic brain. He comes by it rightly.

"It's really just from watching endless movies growing up -- starting to develop some of the rhythmic sense of cutting and storytelling in pictures. I can only explain it that way. I was always a very avid watcher of movies on television and I started to go to the cinema quite young. It made a very big impact on me. When I'm directing people in the theater, I often refer to movies. In fact, there are several moments in the screenplay that are just a kind of verbal storyboard of the picture. There are references to films describing the atmosphere of certain scenes. That's my vocabulary. Certainly, before the time I went to drama school, I was heavily influenced by movies. From then on, I was very interested in words. That combination of both is the best marriage one could imagine."

Nevertheless, he says he didn't want to be a director before he wanted to be an actor. "I did think when I became an actor -- somehow I knew -- that I would not just be an actor, even though it was very life itself to me, the knowledge that I wanted to act. Somehow even then, I knew that I wouldn't be just an actor or that I wouldn't necessarily act forever. I can't quite explain why that should be. I was at once possessed by complete passionate enthusiasm for the idea of being an actor. And yet I knew somehow it would be finite. It did not involve being a director.

"Someone asked me the other day, 'What does it feel like to be a film director?' This was a friend of mine. I said, 'I really don't know, because I don't feel like one.' I feel like an actor who does films from time to time. It may sound like a stupid thing to say, but I feel like an actor who has -- luckily -- been given a camera with some regularity and let loose."

If it sounds physically exhausting to do both, that's because it is.

"I must say the directing part of it I find supremely difficult. I think a lot of directors delegate more than I do, or just don't take on board what I take on board internally. I'm always aware of the clock ticking. I'm always aware of the number of shots to get. I'm always too aware of wanting the actors to feel comfortable -- and of wanting to get a move on.

"I don't think I'm the funniest person to be on a set with. I consider myself quite a jolly creature. The process of concentrating in order to get through a day in a movie is completely exhausting. But it's sort of a delicious fatigue. It's the effort of trying to remember everything you have to remember -- and to be ready to talk to people at the drop of a hat about whatever problem has come up, be it sets, costume, this, that, the other. Then actually within that, acting becomes the pleasure. It becomes the moment of escape and enjoyment where you're sort of released."

He says that he admires several previous Shakespearian films for "different reasons." "A really good film of Shakespeare, I think, is Olivier's 'Hamlet.' I think that's his best Shakespeare film. I think it's so atmospheric and powerful. He savages the play a bit, but it's an impressive piece of filmmaking. I think Polanski's 'Macbeth' is an excellent film. Obviously, Welles' films are brilliant in their way. You don't get the story of the play very clearly sometimes, but you do get fantastic moments that are worth sitting through some of the bits where he ran out of money. I'll tell you another one I liked -- Mankiewicz's 'Julius Caesar' (with Marlon Brando and Louis Calhern). I thought that was very well-acted, if a little stagey. Peter Brook's 'King Lear' with Paul Scofield? It's excellent. It's very austere, though. It's Beckett time, isn't it? So bleak. Right from the word 'go,' it's so bleak. I adore Scofield. I think he's a magnificent actor."

For all his exhaustions, he finds directing films a more salubrious life than acting in the theater.

"After a shoot, I have to have a holiday. For a day or two I'll go through a rough cut with the editor, and then I'll go on holiday. I have to stop for a while -- a couple of weeks of not doing anything. Really not doing anything. You're just completely pooped. Thank God, I've been blessed with a really robust constitution. But you get whacked. That happens in pre-production a bit as well. So far, I haven't cracked under that. As opposed to working in the theater, I find that when I'm filming, I get more rest because I lead a much more regular life. I get up early, I don't mind that. I come home. Em and I are very disciplined about that kind of stuff. I need to get eight hours. If I get eight hours I'm fine. When I'm in the theater, I find that I'm always in bed too late and getting up too early."

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