Enter the Outsider

London Times, August 8, 1987
by Bryan Appleyard

When Kenneth Branagh played Henry at Stratford, he took the stage as if he owned it. Bryan Appleyard talks to one of the theatre's brightest young hopes.

At the age of 16, Kenneth Branagh made his first trip to Stratford. He lived in a tent and saw Michael Hordern in The Tempest, Jonathan Pryce in The Taming of the Shrew and Michael Pennington in Measure for Measure. He also sat in the Dirty Duck - the actors' pub - with a Coca-Cola, eavesdropping on conversations and hoping that people would take him for an actor. He even plucked up the corage to ask the house manager at the theatre to let him see backstage.

"He was born to act," says Hugh Crutwell, the principal at RADA during the two and a half years Branagh studied there. "He is an acting animal."

Ask people in the business to name the brightest hope for British theatre and many of them would select Branagh. At 26, he has two key stage performances behind him - Henry V at Stratford and Tommy Judd in Another Country - and he is now running his own company, the Renaissance, which has just began its first season with a play written by and starring Branagh.

"He was a complete surprise," says Adrian Noble, associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who directed Branagh in Henry V. "I wanted a young Henry, and I expected to have to lead him through a role of that size. But he knew where he was going from the beginning. He knew how to take an audience with him. Above all, he just gets on with it."

The profession, quite simply, adores him and through his new management role he is already taking on the mantle of the new Oliver. His personality helps. Branagh's energy and confidence have raised hopes that, once again, actors may run the show.

He was born in December, 1960, to a working-class Protestant family living in Mountcollyer Street, North Belfast. Of a disciplined but happy childhood, he recalls the extraordinary closeness of family and community as well as the awesome rigour of his primary school. But his father, a carpenter, found work easier to come by in England and wanted to move. Nine-year-old Kenneth, his older brother and his mother, by then pregnant with his sister, all resisted. But one night a Protestant mob fomr another part of town swarmed up the street, took up the iron gratings on the drains and flung them through the windows of the few Catholic houses. The next day the barricades were up and at the end of the street the Troubles were udner way. Mrs Branagh agreed to move.

At 13 he wrote to the Reading Evening Post complaining about their failure to cover children's books. He was made the paper's reviewer, writing a Junior Bookshelf column for three years, and the notion grew that he would become a journalist. But he suspected he could never take the grind of working his way up through locals and, besides, he had been bitten by theatre.

As his A levels approached, his father wearily tried to persuade him to do some work. But he just scraped through, having been unable to put theatre to one side. Luckily, he was accepted at RADA. Crutwell, who was at his first audition, played it cool, telling Branagh: "Acting like that comes ten-a-penny." But now he admits that something special was clearly happneing. The place at the was never in doubt and Crutwell was to become a central influence.

In his last term at RADA, Branagh was cast for a BBC "Play for Today" by Graham Reid called "Too Late to Talk to Billy", which turned out to be the first of a trilogy. Then, almost at once, he was cast for the West End production of Julian Mitchell's Another Country. The play had been running at Greenwich and there had been uncertainty about the move to the West End. Some cast changes were insisted upon - which is where Branagh came in.

With all the casual presumption of youth, Branagh simply took it in his stride. It was just another part. The critics saw it differently. Of Branagh's performance, Irving Wardle remembers: "He was a great discovery, appearing suddenly out of nowhere, fully matured."

"He was a bit of an outsider when he first arrived," recalls David Parfitt, who was also in the cast. "We all used to kid Rupert Everett that this new boy would put him in the shade. He was one of the lads after about a week, though." In fact, Branagh's reputation has been established entirely in heavyweight theatre, contrasting strongly with the stardom cultivated by Everett through films, pop records and the gossip columns.

Branagh began his six-month run in the show with studious devotion. Rising late, eating sensible breakfasts and resting during the day. It was a regime that exhausted him. So, as time wore on, he joined the rest of the cast in lunchtime productions. He discovered that the more he did, the more he could do. "Mind you," he says, "looking back at it now, perhaps I should have been clubbing it every night. It might be my only West End run."

The next year was taken up with television, a period which left him frustrated and feeling starved of the theatre and "real acting." With increasingly typical confidence he organized a one-man show for himself which involved reading the 1,400 lines of Tennyson's Maud. It was seen by two RSC casting directors, leading to Henry V.

Again Branagh was, at first, unamazed. It was a part and he'd got it. Indeed at Stratford on the first night Anthony Sher recalled him "strolling around that famous stage as if born on it."

Henry at Stratford and at the Barbican took up '84 and '85. As the run progressed, Branagh started working on a play of his own. The play awas Tell Me Honestly, and it was produced at Newcastle as part of a festival.

At the same time he was beginning to think of creating his own company - an idea that clearly raised the institutional hackles at the RSC.

"When I left Stratford in '85 Terry Hands said he would give me one piece of advice: 'Don't do it.' He added that Ian McKellan had tried it three times and failed - I disagree with that, incidentally - and it would ruin my acting. It's not often said, but it's behind many directors' attitudes."

But he did finally go ahead, putting Renaissance together with radically pro-actor gestures like asking Judi Dench to direct Much Ado About Nothing and Geraldine McEwan to do the same with As You Like It. "It's marvellous to be able to do something for ourselves," McEwan says. "It's a minor revolution, really." Branagh has put in around 25,000 pounds of his own money and is raising the remainder of the 250,000 needed from private sources.

Although Branagh will not come out and say it explicitly, he clearly has little time for the directing mentality. "I'd much rather be just an actor. I'd love someone to come along and tell me just to play these parts and give all your energy to this company. But the atmosphere doesn't seem right for that to happen. I've talked to a lot of actors who were at the Olivier company at the National - John Stride, Charles Kay and so on - and you can smell that place and feel the quality of the work. I would die for a company like that.

"We miss somebody like Olivier or Gielgud. They were beacons and they knew what it was like to be an actor. I want a few heroes, but I look around and they're not there. But now I really think we are at the beginning of something else."

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