Oh, What a Roguish and Pleasant Slave
London Times, November 21 1992
by Ginny Dougary
**Thanks to Ginny Dougray for permission to post this article
Kenneth Branagh appears to think
he is in a comedy sketch in which the interviewer is cast as
the fall guy. Our question and answer routine is like something
scripted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. All the punch lines
hinge on the same word. ''Isn't it stressful'', I ask, ''directing
the woman you live with?'' ''Well, as Hamlet would say...'' ''Can
you only achieve public success at the cost of private happiness?''
''You know what really fascinates me about Hamlet is...'' ''Do
you take part in the showbiz circuit?'' ''I'm no good at small
talk. Playing Hamlet reminds you of how precious life is.'' Is
he taking the mickey or what?
Branagh is 31. This production,
directed by Adrian Noble for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is
his fourth attempt to conquer the colossal role of Hamlet. His
last essay was in 1989, with Derek Jacobi as director, the same
year he married Emma Thompson at Cliveden, filmed and starred
in Henry V, set up his own Renaissance Theatre Company and wrote
his autobiography. His critics found the breadth and prodigiousness
of all this activity perfectly nauseating. To attempt so much
and at such a tender age was not only impertinent, it smacked
of overweening ambition and a monstrous ego. How dare the whippersnapper
challenge Lord Olivier's epic Henry V with his own celluloid
version? How tedious the Ken and Em show had become: a one-note
samba, the couple endlessly playing different versions of themselves
in The Fortunes of War, Look Back in Anger, and on and on; he
appearing in her television series, she appearing in his plays
But those seeking the comfort
of schadenfreude were to be disappointed. There was no fall and,
even more disconcertingly, whenever Branagh submitted himself
to the scrutiny of the press, there did not seem to be too much
pride either. If anything, he came across as such an unassuming,
nice bloke, it was a bit of a letdown. Even his fans, however,
must have wondered how a 28-year-old, regardless of his achievements,
could think he had been around long enough to justify writing
an autobiography. His response to the cavils was that he needed
the money to buy office space for his theatre company. The book
illuminates Branagh's obsession with the part of Hamlet. It was
seeing Jacobi in the role at the Oxford Playhouse that sharpened
the starstruck schoolboy's appetite to act. Not many years later,
he chose the play for his final performance at Rada, taking note
of Tyrone Guthrie's advice, in A Life in the Theatre, that young
actors should tackle the great roles at the start of their careers,
so that there would be more chance of getting them right early
on. ''I wanted one day to be a great Hamlet,'' Branagh writes.
''I wanted to play Hamlet as many times as possible, so that
each time I played it I would get better in the role, and would
get closer to the truth of the character.''
''John Gielgud said that the
play describes the very process of living.'' Branagh is warming
to his theme as we sit in a tiny, rather squalid eyrie in south
London, during one of the company's rehearsal breaks. ''I would
compare Hamlet to a great piece of music or a poem. It's something
that you respond to with your insides. And that response is a
little deeper, and a little richer, as you get, perhaps, a little
older.'' There is something puzzling about Branagh's delivery
at this early stage of our meeting. Each phrase, regardless of
its insignificance, is carefully weighed and balanced before
the next is pronounced. As he speaks, he stirs the air with his
hand, in a precise little movement, like someone folding a cake
mix. It is as though he is parodying Alan Whicker and Fanny Cradock
simultaneously. It is the very reasonableness of his tone that
Perhaps because we suspect that
actors are never not playing a part, it seems more natural when
they are arch or mock-heroic, fantastically dotty or over-the-top
camp. Why bother being Mr Ordinary, after all, when you can be
It feels churlish to quibble
about an actor's lack of theatricality when it should make a
refreshing change, and particularly since Branagh is such an
affable interviewee. He is effortlessly courteous springing to
the door every time anyone knocks, scrabbling around on the floor
to fix the wonky table so that I can write my notes and he does
something with his eyes which makes one see, despite what he
describes with some accuracy as his nondescript features, why
he has a reputation for being a ladies' man. It is only, however,
when he drops the measured pontificating to let off steam that
one senses he is being himself.
We are discussing The Wedding.
Had the couple intended it to be quite such a public spectacle?
''No, no, very much the reverse,'' Branagh says. But it was not
exactly a quiet, understated celebration, was it? The marriage
even featured in Hello!, although the magazine did not attend
the ceremony. ''The wedding was not quiet because there was nothing
else going on in the country at the time,'' he says. ''There
was absolutely I'm here to tell you no pursuit of publicity for
that wedding whatsoever, may God strike me dead now. The more
we said, 'Look, we're just havin' a do', the more interest there
was in it. The press was overdosing on us at the time.'' (Thompson
makes another appearance in a recent issue of Hello!, under the
teasing banner ''Caring Actress Who Hopes Her Future Family Will
Share In Her Commitment'', to publicise Oxfam's fiftieth anniversary.)
There was no question that the
couple would get married in a church because of Branagh's antipathy
to conventional religion. (His parents are Irish Protestants.
The family moved from Belfast to Reading when Branagh was nine
years old.) He starts off languidly enough: ''I don't like churches.
Never have done. I associate them with fire and brimstone. I
find them oppressive places. They are the most joyless, soulless
places. I hate them. '' And suddenly he is off, in a crackle
of anger: ''I really hate them. I hate all that religious stuff.
I hate what the Church of England does. There's so much hypocrisy
about what God is supposed to do. I come from a province where
the whole place is divided because of it. Inevitably, there's
a personal connection with it. And what's this about the Vatican
having just endorsed the death penalty the other day? Great.
Thanks. That will help promote human understanding, won't it?
Let's kill the buggers. Then we could have hung the Guildford
Four, couldn't we?''
An animated Branagh can sound
like a slightly arrested, bolshy undergraduate. The ''kind of''s,
''y'know''s and expletives come so thick and fast, they are in
danger of obscuring the words in between. The effect is oddly
reminiscent of the character he plays in his new film, Peter's
Friends. Come to think of it, he even seems to be wearing the
same clothes: grey and black, an open-necked shirt, revealing
a tuft of mousy chest hair, a casual jacket.
The film (produced by, directed
by, and starring Branagh) is a sort of Oxbridge version of The
Big Chill: a group of friends who were at university together
meet up ten years later for a weekend reunion. Since Hugh Laurie,
Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery and Thompson were all at Cambridge
together, as well as Martin Bergman, who co-wrote the script
with Rita Rudner, one can guarantee the audience will be searching
for autobiographical clues.
This process of identification
can prove too elliptical. Many people assume, for instance, that
because of the company he keeps and his glittering career, Branagh
was part of the Footlights set. In fact, he went straight to
Rada, with a set of undistinguished A-level results from a Reading
comprehensive. He visited one of the Oxford colleges with a girl
friend from Reading, and wrote about the experience in his autobiography.
''We sat in some ancient rooms at midnight, drinking port. Our
host put a violin concerto by a little-known composer on the
record player. The smooth-talking undergraduate next to me turned
and spoke as if the effort might kill him: 'They're taking this
at quite a lick, aren't they?' I smiled and shifted nervously
in my seat, moving an enormous working-class chip from one shoulder
to the other, and thought that this definitely wasn't the place
''One of the myths about this
film'', Branagh says, ''is that we are all as thick as thieves.
I'm sure that some people will say it should be called Kenny's
Friends, when in fact I have no past history with them at all.
It's Em who goes way back with them. The other thing I'd like
to say is should this company the RSC be known as Adrian's Friends
because vast numbers of people work regularly in this organisation?
And look at Martin Scorsese's films. Are people annoyed because
Robert de Niro has worked with him six times? And, 'Apparently,
he knows him!'''
This is said, partly I am sure,
as a pre-emptive strike to ward off the inevitable question about
the Ken and Em partnership. How does the power dynamic work offstage?
''Um, um, um... the bottom line is as a director I wouldn't be
employing her if I didn't think she was a fine actress,'' Branagh
replies, which is not exactly an answer to my question. ''I feel
very lucky to have her. She's one of our best. She is very much
her own woman. She doesn't back down from what she would normally
say as an actress in response to a director. And I don't back
down either. She's very good at being specific. She'll say, 'No,
I don't know what you mean. You'll have to tell me again.' It's
good for the other actors because it sets the example for a certain
level of communication. In all honesty, it is very professional
because I'm not interested in parading my personal life in front
of the people I work with. Obviously our professional life is
very warm, but we have our married life, as it were, away from
Branagh is as evasive as a politician
when he is asked questions he prefers not to answer. The more
personal the enquiry, the more general his response. This probably
explains why he persistently steers the conversation back to
the comparatively safe terrain of Hamlet. When I point this out,
he practically chokes on his sandwich and then mumbles something
unintelligible about a walnut. Sorry? ''Em sometimes calls me
a walnut because that's how unemotional I could be.'' Could you
elaborate, please? ''I've always felt that 'You've got to be
strong' male stuff. My dad's very much like that. I think it's
a very natural thing to be protective of your own emotions, so
that you make an advance decision not to involve yourself as
much as you might. But I'm much less like that now.''
On one of his many forays into
Hamlet's character, Branagh mentions that everyone knows what
it's like to suffer from a broken heart. So what was his experience?
This is probably below the belt, since one knows that he will
be far too polite to say, ''Mind your own business.'' Instead,
he scrunches up the discarded wrappings of his sandwich with
such deliberation, that we both crack up. When I ask whether
the couple plan to have children he becomes spectacularly inarticulate:
''Yeh er that would be nice, that would be nice. Er. Er. I I
I. You You You hope that you'll have them and we do. Yeh.''
I wonder, since we must talk
about Hamlet, whether it's principally the pyrotechnics of the
part, the fabulous rolling arias of the speeches, that explain
the pull. ''I don't say that it's completely without ego'', Branagh
says, ''but it isn't just about putting on the tights and being
a kind of mincing luvvie. For me, the part expresses doubts and
concerns about whether there is any point in being alive at all.
And I believe that everybody has those doubts, however embarrassing
it is to talk about them.''
Branagh proceeds to launch into
one of his key speeches, which convinces me that, if nothing
else, he knows his lines. ''I mean, you've only got to say, 'Well,
what about Somalia?' And that's fine because we do feel and Hamlet
feels, indeed, the extraordinary pressure of world events. 'To
be or not to be...' is full of that. 'Who would bear the whips
and scorns of time?. Th'oppressor's wrong (Yugoslavia), the proud
man's contumely (John Major), the pangs of despis'd love (everyone's
had their heart broken), the law's delay (Guildford Four and
the Birmingham Six) and the spurnsThat patient merit of th'unworthy
takes (Anyone who's had anything to do with the government or
whatever). I mean, who would do this, you know, if you could
actually take a dagger and kill yourself?''
It is tempting to invest our
artists with damaged psyches, to somehow believe that they are
making themselves whole through their art. But this is particularly
wrong-footed in the case of Branagh. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis,
for instance, he has none of the existential angst of the young
Danish prince he loves to play. He is an optimist who is fascinated
by the preoccupations of the pessimist. But he is also more reflective
and inward-looking than one might imagine he has time to be.
(His current schedule is fairly typical: the days in punishing
rehearsals; the evenings devoted to editing his forthcoming film
of Much Ado About Nothing and planning his version of Frankenstein.)
Last year, Branagh and Thompson went on a four-month walking
holiday, staying in bed-and-breakfasts in Ireland and Scotland.
Branagh says he desperately needed a break, an unencumbered period
that was not at the end of one immense project and at the beginning
of another. ''One is exercised by our inability to be happy;
we have very unquiet minds. It is a dangerous game with actors.
You can't pretend when it suits you to be 'in life'. Sometimes
you just have to stop.''
It is this desire for inner stillness
which attracts him to eastern religions. Towards the end of the
interview, when he had loosened up considerably, Branagh talked
about this inward journey. ''One of the wonderful things about
those people, and I am not among them, who can meditate well,
is their ability to achieve that sense of being absolutely nothing.
To just 'be' and not to have your head full of 'Oh God, I'm late',
'The gas man's coming', 'Oh Christ, Somalia'.'' He is particularly
taken with one Buddhist tract: ''There's this grand master, 100
years old, and he's asked to sum it all up. 'Just be cheerful'
is what he says. It sounds glib, on one level, but it's also
delicious. It's the kind of thing that Shakespeare does all the
Branagh's obsession with D.H.Lawrence,
rather than Hamlet, may yield more clues about what drives him.
He started reading Lawrence's letters in a moment of emotional
crisis, and has been hooked on the man and his work ever since.
''There's this character from a working-class background who
went away into a different kind of world, and I felt a deep connection
with that. It's very romantic to someone like me, that he achieved
a great position and accomplished so much, and that he came from
Nottingham. I like the idea of him being on his own when he first
came to London, and suddenly being on the edges of the whole
Bloomsbury caboodle. He was so single-minded about what he wanted
to do. I've even got a bunch of books that he and Jesse Chambers
had back in the early 1900s in Nottingham. I have spent some
considerable time touching his signature and thinking, 'God,
I wish I had met him.'''
Olivia Manning's phrase about
the Anglo-Irish sense of ''belonging nowhere'' has a special
significance for Branagh. The passage in his autobiography in
which he describes his transformation from a cocky Belfast lad
into a solitary teenager in the English suburbs is surprisingly
affecting: his mother suffering from loneliness and a loss of
confidence which took years to regain; the young Branagh, surrounded
by fellow pupils whose older brothers were in the army, straining
to mask his Irishness at school and then suffering from guilt
at home. ''For as long as I could, I kept up the double life'',
he writes, ''but my voice gradually took on the twang of suburbia.
However, I still sounded different, and was very careful when
the subject of English casualties in Ulster came up in school.''
Between the age of 12 and 15, he coped with his predicament by
retreating into himself. It was through acting, a legitimate
method of reinvention, that Branagh discovered a way out.
Branagh seems to be at his happiest
in a culture where actors are not made a fuss of. He fell in
love with Australia when he spent several months there filming
an adaptation of Lawrence's The Boy in the Bush. He has used
return visits in much the same way that other people go to health
farms. He is similarly restored by trips to Ireland. The premieres
of his three films have been in Belfast, and the Renaissance
Theatre Company performs in Dublin and Belfast each year. He
is recognised there, but not gaped at. ''There's a different
attitude. They'll say 'Hello', or breaking into an accent 'Very
nice on the television there, ah Kevin, very good.' In a pub
in Ireland you can talk about a football match and you can talk
about a poem. You can get very deep very quickly, in a way that
you can't quite over here,'' he says. ''It has something to do
with the unaffected knowledge and curiosity across the social
classes and sexes which I like.''
Branagh's conversation is littered
with references to the way actors can get marginalised into a
self-obsessed kind of ''luvvery''. Some of his best friends are
actors, but he avoids the theatrical hoopla of first nights and
the right restaurants. ''It's very easy to get into a scene where
your feet never touch the ground...Where you're only ever having
conversations with people who are looking over their shoulders
to see if there's anyone more interesting to talk to. Your vocabulary
narrows into 'How are you?', 'Good', 'Oh good', 'Lovely', 'It
was marvellous', 'No, you were great', 'I was great', 'Let's
not talk about me. What did you think of my performance?' So
one tends not to do it.''
Branagh strikes me as thoroughly
likable, and a good deal cuter and more larky than his bland
image. He is so unpretentious, indeed almost gauche, that it
is easy to forget how much he has accomplished for such a young
man. At the end of the interview, a rather harassed stage manager
knocks on our door for the second time. Hamlet is very definitely
needed back in the rehearsal room. Branagh says: ''I'll be right
with you, darling.'' And it doesn't sound right at all.
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