Is Renaissance Theatre's Branagh the New Olivier?

Los Angeles Times, October 16 1989
by Mary Blume

He looks more like James Cagney than a smoldering classical hero, but in the sweepstakes to inherit the mantle of Lord Laurence Olivier, the front-runner these days is 27-year-old Kenneth Branagh, whose Renaissance Theatre Company has made its London debut with a verve and buoyance that haven't been seen here since the National Theatre opened under Olivier 20 years ago.

His Hamlet has been described as "active, impetuous, as tight-lipped as Olivier," his Touchstone in "As You Like It," wearing a loud checked Edwardian suit, recalled Olivier's Archie Rice in "The Entertainer" for many critics.

As Benedick in the company's third production, "Much Ado About Nothing," he was, on the other hand, praised for being very much his own man, richly comic but deeply touching, a young man in love and not, as is so often the case, a mature actor giving a fine display of verbal pyrotechnics.

Branagh himself takes the praise lightly. He refers to himself as an emerging actor and refuses to believe in himself as the new Olivier -- "this week's new Olivier," he says with a grin.

"It's a flattering comparison that bears no relation to fact," he said in his dressing room at the Phoenix Theatre, where the Renaissance Company is playing through October. "I think it says more about the shadow that that genius casts on the profession in this century -- anybody who emerges who is doing the classics is treading the same ground.

"In terms of careers, there's no comparison. In terms of what we are -- he was a fantastic-looking matinee idol, I'm not that kind of creature at all. I couldn't be in any kind of competition with him."

Certainly not competitively but in an act that will inevitably raise the comparison once again, Branagh's next project is to direct and star in a film version of "Henry V," which Olivier filmed so memorably in 1944.

Filming on the 4.5 million production ($8 million U.S.) will begin at Shepperton Studios a week after St. Crispin's Day when the Renaissance Company's London season is over. Branagh, who spends his days in pre-production at Shepperton, has directed on the stage but "Henry V" marks his first go at film.

"This will be the full hubristic number," he says.

Olivier was 37 when he made "Henry V" as a thrilling patriotic spectacle for war-weary Britain. Henry was the same age as Branagh when he fought at Agincourt.

"There are lots of references to the journey toward maturity that he goes through in the play," Branagh says. "That's one of the things that his film was less concerned with and that we can afford to be more concerned with. It's something we will see writ large on rather young features.

"I believe that it could be a truly popular film, that the audience that wants to see 'Rambo III' could also be stimulated to see 'Henry Five,' not just because it's a splendid narrative that some people think is sort of 'Boys Own,' but because it's a very thought-provoking piece which says a lot in a complicated and ambiguous way, it seems to me, about war."

Branagh's last film role as an actor was a sensitive World War I veteran in "A Month in the Country." He has done a great deal of television, ranging from Charles Tansley in "To the Lighthouse" to Guy Pringle in the series "The Fortunes of War." As co-founder and artistic director of the Renaissance Theatre Company, he admits there are times when he feels hampered by his attachment to the group.

"But it's a small price to pay. It's sometimes sad to hear that some extraordinary film with lots of money and exciting locations has gone because one wasn't available, but mind you I think that as soon as you do become available they ask someone else."

Born in Northern Ireland, Branagh left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1981 with a clutch of acting awards including the Bancroft Gold Medal. He went straight to an award-winning performance in "Another Country" and in 1984, he became a contender as a classical actor in a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company which included a widely praised "Henry V."

He has written several plays, including "Public Enemy," a political melodrama set in Belfast in which he played a Cagney look-alike. From the start, he has shown an agility and intensity that required a wide field of action. After his brilliant commercial and classical debuts, he chose to spend some time in London's fringe theater, where he developed the idea for the Renaissance Theatre with actor David Parfitt, who is in charge of administration.

The Renaissance, founded in April, 1987, is a young and flexible touring company performing classical and modern works. It receives no subsidies but word of mouth was sufficient for its first London season with an advance of 250,000.

One of the attention-getting features of the Renaissance is that its productions are directed by actors. Branagh, who has the reputation of falling in love with his leading ladies, has done several productions and in the current London season "As You Like It" was directed by Geraldine McEwan, "Much Ado About Nothing" by Dame Judi Dench, who was herself one of the best Beatrices in recent memory, and "Hamlet" was directed by Derek Jacobi, whose own Hamlet in 1979 was the first Branagh ever saw.

Inevitably, inviting leading actors to direct has been compared to letting the lunatics take over the asylum. The point, Branagh says, is not to have a company designed for actor-directors, but simply to redress a balance in which directors have become all-important.

"It's just to say why shouldn't Judi Dench direct 'Much Ado' and it needn't mean that she wants to be a director for the rest of her life, but she may have something worthwhile and particular to say about the play.," Branagh said. "I wanted to make less unusual the prospect of other people doing the same thing."

Branagh is currently at work on a three-year repertory of classical and contemporary works for the Renaissance and while he has no illusions that the company will last forever, he is determined that it will endure for its useful life.

For his own career, after a start at once so brilliant and sure-footed, the whole range of classical roles stretches randomly ahead.

"I'm superstitious about those parts.," he said. "I think they're either on your dance card or not, and I never assume they are. I didn't assume Hamlet was." He would love to play Iago and also Macbeth as "an unsuspecting type, a young, open-faced, fair person. You know he's always cast as dark.

"I'd love, if I'm still alive and kicking and people will let me do it, to play King Lear. Especially since there will be a lot of information in the old tank by then. And it would be lovely to do another Hamlet."

The Branagh boom has reached boiling level: 17 British publishers bid at a recent auction for his autobiography. He used the 50,000 advance he received to get proper offices for the Renaissance and now he must face writing the book. "Of all the things I'm doing this year," he says, "writing the book terrifies me the most."

He is too clever to attempt a full autobiography at his age, but he says he will probably have to put in some autobiography because he doesn't have much else to write about. His plan is to use the book to describe the Renaissance company: "It's not going to be my life in art or anything, but the story of a work in progress.

"I've got the title, actually," he said, brightening. " 'I Will Tell You the Beginning.' It's from a line in 'As You Like It,' where Le Beau says, 'I will tell you the beginning, and, if it please your ladyships, you may see the end; for the best is yet to be.' "

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