Kenneth Branagh Unveils All-star Residency at Garrick Theatre in London
The Celebrated Actor and Director Has Spent Two Years Planning a Five-play Season, Which Will Run For a Year and Feature Judi Dench, Lily James and Rob Brydon

Guardian, 17 April 2015
By Mark Brown
* Thanks, Jude

Kenneth Branagh is to make a dramatic return to the London stage by spending a year in the West End putting on a season of plays with his own company. The run will include him directing Judi Dench in 'The Winter’s Tale' and Richard Madden and Lily James, the stars of his film 'Cinderella', in 'Romeo and Juliet'.

Branagh is planning to follow in the footsteps of actors such as John Gielgud by creating a theatre company that will have a residency in one theatre.

While Gielgud was at the Queens in 1937 with a season of 'Richard II', 'The School for Scandal', 'Three Sisters' and 'The Merchant of Venice', Branagh will be a tenant at the Garrick with 'The Winter’s Tale', Terence Rattigan’s 'Harlequinade', an adaptation of Francis Veber’s 'The Painkiller', 'Romeo and Juliet' and John Osborne’s 'The Entertainer'.

The season, which will be called Plays at the Garrick, has been at least two years in the planning, Branagh said. “For a long time I’ve wanted to land in a place, to have a creative home where you could do a programme of work, rather than just one-offs.”

He was last in the West End in 2008 in 'Ivanov' and was due to direct Jude Law in 'Hamlet' before film commitments took over. Since then he has directed 'Thor', 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit' and 'Cinderella', but his focus for now, he said, will be theatre. His creative team will include director Rob Ashford and designer Christopher Oram.

“We wanted a playhouse,” said Branagh. “We wanted somewhere where our intimate and naturalistic approach to Shakespeare could be heard, where people could, in a 700-plus-seat theatre, see the whites of your eyes, but where the stage is just big enough to give us the epic quality some of these plays may need. Our intention is to engage with the audience.”

'The Winter’s Tale' will star Branagh as Leontes and Dench as Paulina and be co-directed by Branagh and Ashford, who collaborated on 'Macbeth' at the Manchester International Festival in 2013. At the same time, the company will perform Rattigan’s rarely staged comedy 'Harlequinade', about a classical theatre company putting on 'The Winter’s Tale' and 'Romeo and Juliet'.

This will be followed in March by 'The Painkiller', adapted and directed by Sean Foley and starring Branagh and Rob Brydon. The farce was first seen at the Belfast Lyric, marking its reopening in 2011 after it was rebuilt. 'Romeo and Juliet' will run from May to August and star Madden, who played Robb Stark in 'Game of Thrones', and James, who plays Lady Rose in 'Downton Abbey'. Branagh said Madden and James had a “passion and excitement for Shakespeare” that could draw younger audiences who might have seen them in the live-action version of 'Cinderella'.

The season will finish with John Osborne’s The Entertainer', which might be considered a bold choice, given that the lead role is so closely associated with Laurence Olivier. The Guardian’s Michael Billington has just begun a top 10 of theatrical performances that have etched themselves on his memory – first was Olivier’s Archie Rice in a 1957 performance of the play.

Branagh said he was doing the play because Ashford came to him with the idea and because he has a personal link to Osborne’s 'Look Back in Anger', in which he appeared 26 years ago, directed by Dench. Not that Olivier’s performance, three years before Branagh was born, would put him off. “When I was 17, I saw Derek Jacobi playing Hamlet; it was transcendent, but it didn’t put me off playing Hamlet – it inspired me to play Hamlet.”

Some might argue that Osborne was a little out of fashion, Branagh said, but “his theatrical invective is unique, and to see how that unleashes itself on an audience in 2016 is going to be really interesting”.

The season continues a trend that has seen a Trevor Nunn season at Theatre Royal Haymarket, Michael Grandage at the Wyndhams and Jamie Lloyd at Trafalgar Studios.

Branagh, who ran his own Renaissance Theatre Company between 1988 and 1992, said the venture was a gamble – and one he hoped to repeat in the future. “We are asking the public to take a few risks with their hard–earned cash. Audiences are sophisticated, and they have so many choices of where they may spend their money, how they may get their entertainment.”

Ashford, an American director and choreographer who has staged the last three Oscar ceremonies, said it was “a liberating commitment ... it is thrilling. I love working in London, I find it nourishing and creative and I love the community here.”

Oram added: “It is a privilege to work with people you love and get on with and are excited and stimulated by ... If we didn’t want to do it, we wouldn’t be doing it. It is a fantastic opportunity.”

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