On The Throne

Irish News, July 28, 1997
by Colin McAlpin

Belfast film-maker Kenneth Branagh reveals the motives for his Shakespearean masterpiece, Hamlet, in an exclusive interview with Arts Editor Colin McAlpin...

Only Kenneth Branagh could have done it. The Belfast-born actor - and writer, producer and director, such is the man's remarkable talents - has such an international reputation as one of the world's leading directors of Shakespeare on film that he was able to bring together a cast of staggering variety for his latest epic, the making of Hamlet.

As well as what might now be considered the Branagh Rep Company - Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench, Richard Briers - he has in the line-up Sir John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, Charlton Heston, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams.

"The big names in the cast did not take their roles for the money since we didn't have a big enough budget to pay Hollywood-style fees...they were all very keen to be in what they perhaps perceived as the definitive screen Hamlet," says Branagh, who as well as taking the title role adapted the classic for the screen and directed it. "I tried to be astute in my choices and go for actors I thought would be right for the roles and would do the film justice.

"For instance, Jack Lemmon is very moving as Marcellus, Charlton Heston has great majesty as the Player King and Billy Crystal is very funny as the Gravedigger but without tipping over into farce."

Branagh, of course, has a formidable reputation for mixing often unlikely casts and coming up with a triumph: he did it brilliantly for Much Ado About Nothing.

"This production is cast colour-blind, nationality-blind, accent-blind. I wanted to work with people I had admired for a number of years and who I thought would be very good for the parts. The financing from Castle Rock was in no way conditional on casting, so I had a free hand. I wanted to encourage the kind of diversity where you could have a number of classically trained actors as well as exciting new elements. I thought it would provide a healthy clash of approaches that would keep this version as refreshing and original as possible."

Filming Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest play, has long been one of Branagh's cherished desires...for seven years, ever since he made Henry V, his first screen version of a Shakespeare classic. Actually his love of Hamlet goes back even further, he has been intrigued - obsessed even - since he first saw the play on stage when he was 15.

"I was completely struck by the power of the play," he recalls, "It even seemed to affect me physically, I had the shakes. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I was astonished by what a terrific thriller it was. It had everything - murder, violence, intrigue, passion, a ghost - and I experienced a part of what made Hamlet so profoundly exciting and powerful. It was utterly compelling."

He wanted to make a full-text version as well as a conventional length film - the former will be a 70mm version (the first British film in more than 25 years to use this spectacular format) and the latter a 35mm version - because, he explains: "By filming the entire play, you have Shakespeare's complete entertainment. I do not want the audience to be filled with dread the fact that we are using all of the text. In practice, it's a bonus. There are so many additional exciting elements to take advantage of.

"For instance, Hamlet is one of the wittiest plays ever written, with some of the bleakest and the broadest humour. This comic element is a necessary complement to the play's emotional demands. But whatever length the play is, it's difficult to resist the power of the drama itself. From the very first moment, it rivets the attention. Two men see something 'out there', they don't know what it is, and they're terrified. This suspense is a building-block for the thriller to come. Hamlet has all the dramatic devices needed to keep an audience enthralled."

His star-studded cast certainly loved working with Branagh, as Lemmon was quoted as saying: "Kenneth is in total command. He knows what he wants but doesn't impose that on his actors. He allows them to bring their own feelings and their interpretation to the part and then will make suggestions - a little more here, a little less there. Like all good directors, he has the security to allow other people to bring what they've got to offer."

"Ken," adds Lord Richard Attenborough (and, yes, he has a part in the film, that of the British ambassador), "is an extraordinary young man. When he's directing, he knows exactly which buttons to press for an actor. He knows when to offer criticism, when to encourage. He knows exactly what he wants."

Branagh has played Hamlet quite often on stage - "I've played the part probably about 200-300 times," he says - and has found his performance has changed, not only because he is more familiar with the part but because - "I hope" - he has matured himself: "When Derek Jacobi directed me in 1988, I was a pretty hectic Hamlet. This is a man who is funny, passionate, ironic, self-aware, yet engaged in a familiar struggle to find personal peace and happiness. I think my performance has deepened as I've got a little older and, hopefully, a little wiser. The role is like a great piece of music that you come back to again and again and always hear something more."

Hamlet is, of course, one of the most filmed of Shakespeare's plays - we only recently had a fine version from Mel Gibson - so there has to be a good reason for wanting to do it again: "This is a play that reflects the personality, the temperament and the preoccupations of the individuals who are doing it, so that as soon as anyone else does it, it is shown in a very different kind of light.

"Something like this offers a massive canvas. It encapsulates a very personal look at what it means to be a human being, to be alive, how to find peace of mind and to be subject to all the paranoids, insecurities, passions and emotions that we experience. A whole survey of human nature...what better canvas could you wish for?"

The film is set in the 19th Century, a period in Europe's history when borders were changing and when royal families controlled large empires. In the story," he says, "the impact of the events of one royal family is felt right across Europe. At the end of the film, when Fortinbras takes over, the map of Europe has been redrawn. The 19th Century setting allows for an opulent, elegant and powerful look. It brings the story closer to us but remains at a sufficient distance for us to accept that the characters speak in a heightened language."

Playing Hamlet, Branagh says, has changed his life: "Someone once said that Hamlet is a hoop through which every actor must jump and they have through the centuries. The role is something that generates tremendous excitement in performers and audiences. The play is so full of quotes that they have become part of everyday language. I think everyone is aware of the name of Hamlet even if it only conjures up a rather depressed man in tights. It's a story that intrigues people and one of the things we wanted to do with that extraordinary power was divest it of some of the cliches and just reveal it to be what we think it is: a quite wonderful story."

Branagh has never been afraid to have a hands-on approach to a wide range of jobs when making films. But didn't he ever fear he might be taking on too much?

"For any other project, yes, I would have that fear. But Hamlet has been in my blood for such a long time, over half my life. I have strong feelings about how I see the character. I was compelled to do this, I could do it no other way. It's such a huge piece so the challenge of trying to do the genius of the writer justice - from the performances, to the sets, to the costumes, to the music - was simply irresistible."

For Branagh, the film chalks up another triumph and a long-held dream realised: "I think this represents the culmination of all our efforts to prove that what works in the theatre can live in another medium. This film is partly for those who think of Shakespeare as a dry text which is 'good for them'. Hamlet has the kind of power, energy and excitement that cinema can truly exploit."

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