Releasing the Prince

Los Angeles Daily News, January 19 1997
by Reed Johnson

Since the first time he saw "Hamlet" performed as an impressionable English schoolboy, it has been Kenneth Branagh's obsession - if that's not too mild a word.

That first production happened back in 1977. Branagh was 15, and the mesmerizing lead actor was one Derek Jacobi, touring the provinces with the Oxford New Theatre.

Based on that revelatory outing, Branagh says, he resolved to become an actor, with the aim of one day performing his own "Hamlet." Over the next two decades, he circled around Shakespeare's thorniest text, probing for soft spots.

Finally, he lunged for the jugular. Three years ago, he starred in a sellout production of the play with England's Royal Shakespeare Company, eventually logging more than 250 performances as the Angst-prone Danish aristocrat.

Lobbying since 1989

The four-hour, uncut version of the epic in which Branagh gets triple billing as adapter, director and star opened in limited release on Christmas Day; it opens in Cleveland Friday. He had been lobbying to make the film since he shook up Hollywood in 1989 with his directorial debut, Shakespeare's "Henry V."

Yet after finally being able to do his dream role before a potential audience of millions, Branagh insists this will be his last stab at the Dane. At 36, he is nearing the age when actors risk turning Shakespeare's "sweet prince" into a poster child for chronic arrested development.

Is Branagh feeling a bit wistful as he bids adieu to the alter ego who has consumed him for so long?

"No, it's not hard to let go, 'cause you never really had hold of it, you know," says Branagh, surprisingly cheerful at the prospect. "It's a play about which, delightfully, it's impossible to be proprietorial. It always yields something."

Taming the part

If Branagh is willing to relinquish Hamlet, he's also prepared to concede that the devilishly complex part had eluded him until now.

Looking back on his past Hamlets, he says, "as far as I can judge them, they definitely were deficient in some way." He was always, in his own words, "a very hectic, younger Hamlet."

It took an accumulation of life experience, a critical mass of ups and downs, for him to be able to tame the part. For Branagh, that point arrived not a moment too soon.

"This was the last age at which I thought I could possibly play it," he says. "You know, you're halfway through this biblical 'three-score and 10.'

Branagh's denial that he (or anyone else) can own Shakespeare's subtlest creation isn't mere false modesty. Reared in the British tradition of repertory ensemble, where actors switch back and forth between lead and bit parts, Branagh sees himself simply as one in a long line of Hamlets extending back over nine or 10 generations - a temporary caretaker of a character who belongs to the ages.

Salute to predecessors

Not coincidentally, in casting "Hamlet," he saluted two of his most illustrious predecessors in the role: Jacobi, who plays Claudius, Hamlet's murderous, incestuous uncle; and the ninety- something Sir John Gielgud, who has a cameo as Priam.

Jacobi, whose own Hamlet for London's Old Vic was widely considered the best since Richard Burton's, questions the idea there could be a "definitive" Hamlet.

"Hamlet is such an indefinable character, really, that in a sense anybody can play it," he says. "It's the great personality part. It really depends on the look and the sound, and the mental and charismatic makeup of whatever actor is playing Hamlet. There are as many Hamlets as there are actors to play him really."

The term "father figure" is kind of problematic in a story about a guy whose uncle murders his father, then marries the prince's widowed mom. Let's just say that Branagh looks to both Gielgud and Jacobi as "mentors."

It was Gielgud, after all, who critiqued Branagh's monologue from "Hamlet" when he was an anxious drama student at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Sir John's verdict: "Too quick, much too quick."

Tipping of the hat

But that encounter began a 15-year professional friendship between the two men, which included collaborating on Branagh's Academy Award-nominated short film, "Swan Song."

"For me, it was important that Gielgud was in it ['Hamlet'], however briefly, because he is, I think, the Hamlet of the century,' Branagh says.

According to Jacobi, it's "absolutely characteristic" of Branagh to tip his hat to fellow actors who have inspired him over the years.

"It's one of his great gifts, I think, that he, in a sense, acknowledges the past," says Jacobi, who directed his friend as Hamlet in a 1988 production by Renaissance Theatre Company, the classical troupe Branagh co-founded in 1987.

Rejecting the cliche of Hamlet as a borderline manic-depressive, Branagh built his characterization around what he sees as the prince's very normal, human pain over the death of his father, which occurs before the opening of the play.

"In the midst of grief, the floodgates are unlocked on all those other feelings that we're subject to, that overwhelm the personality at moments of trauma," Branagh says.

A price to pay

Branagh also wanted the movie to depict the "isolation of leadership," and the way that rich, powerful people can be made to squirm when they're placed in a pressure cooker.

"It makes for an amazing amount of tension, and I think it gives an audience a precarious thrill," he observes. "I think they like to know that that's one of the prices you pay for the privilege of that kind of position."

By modern studio standards, attempting a full-length "Hamlet" might be taken as proof of insanity. But Branagh's gambit, like the prince himself, may be mad only "north-north-west."

By craftily casting marquee American actors in small, crucial roles - Charlton Heston as a majestic Player King, Billy Crystal as a cigar-chomping gravedigger - Branagh raised the movie's chances of holding its ground.

"There was no intention to make a long film for its own sake, but to make the film that we thought told the story the best," he says.

Now that "Hamlet" has wrapped, Branagh has "no specific plans" to do a fourth Shakespeare film. (In addition to directing the 1993 "Much Ado About Nothing," he also played Iago in a 1995 version of "Othello" opposite Larry Fishburne.)

Aspiring to spy films

Eager to keep his Hollywood resume as varied as possible, he will be filming a John Grisham drama, "The Gingerbread Man," with Robert Altman this winter, and aspires next to do a spy film, "you know, code-breaking things and that kind of stuff."

As for "Hamlet," well, there'll always be another generation to worry about him.

"Yeah, it will be 'cheerio,' Branagh says. "You won't see me pulling on the black tights and the floppy white shirt anymore. I'll leave it to somebody else."

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