Extreme Hamlet, Branagh Style

Ottawa Citizen, January 3 1997
by Judy Gerstel

"Human beings in positions of great responsibility and power." That's one of the things about Hamlet that's of "keen interest" to Kenneth Branagh.

And well it should be.

Branagh's position of power has allowed him to perpetrate the longest Shakespeare film in history, a four-hour Hamlet with text and scenes that would surprise, well, Shakespeare. To cut or not to cut: That wasn't even in question.

He cast and designed the $ 18-million upcoming movie according to his personal whim, setting it in the 19th century, using non-traditional casting combining black actors, Hollywood stars, and English unknowns.

He cast himself as the young prince, daringly directing himself in one of the culture's greatest dramatic roles.

There's no doubt Kenneth Branagh is in a position of power.

But is he a human being?

Megalomaniac has been mentioned. Superhuman, at least.

"At this point in your life," he is asked, "what's the most difficult thing?"

"I don't know," he replies."You've completely stumped me."

Ever affable, he searches for something that's difficult for him. "The travelling kills me," he admits happily. "The bicoastal flights on this continent I find completely exhausting."

Slim and fit, the 36-year-old actor/director/producer sports a butter-soft, made-in-Italy Gucci black leather jacket worn with jeans and a fleecy zippered top with a Hamlet logo.

"We're really banging the drum for this one," he says about his indefatigable promotion of the film (he did six talk-show interviews in New York), acknowledging that a four-hour Shakespeare film needs all the help it can get.

With advance bookings already on sale, the film is being marketed as an event. But movie-goers familiar with Branagh's work, including the juicy Much Ado About Nothing, know his priority is entertainment. He blatantly woos the box office with mass-appeal adaptations while illuminating the text with natural delivery and sensuousness.

He has said about Much Ado, "It was important to me that it sounded and looked and smelled for everybody."

Much Ado, however, was merely an hors d'oeuvre compared with the feast of Hamlet which, he says, "is not about a bunch of manic-depressives."

The play has haunted him like the ghost haunts the prince, whispering "Do it. Do it."

Introduction to Shakespeare

Hamlet was the first Shakespeare play Branagh ever saw. He was 16 and the actor playing Hamlet was Derek Jacobi. That experience so affected Branagh that not only did he decide to become an actor, he also wrote to Jacobi and later visited him backstage as a drama student.

"I told him, 'You've got to realize that you'll live a life of constant rejection,"' recalls Jacobi. "Of course, he went out and was an immediate success."

Later on, when Branagh did his first Hamlet, he asked Jacobi to direct.

"I had to keep putting the brakes on him," says Jacobi. "It was a very active Hamlet, too fast. Now, with experience and a greater knowledge of the play, he's slowed down."

For his movie, Branagh cast Julie Christie as Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and Jacobi as Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, a choice that is surprising but revelatory.

Of Branagh's performance in the film, Jacobi says: "Ken thinks quickly, and that's a very attractive quality in an actor. He's also very agile. Acting comes so naturally to him. It looks like his natural element. That's true for every second he's on screen. He looks as if he belongs in that place."

Of all the great classical roles, adds Jacobi, "Hamlet is the personality part. I think 99 per cent of the time it's played off the personality of the actor playing it, put into the situation that Shakespeare has given Hamlet to cope with.

"It's very much the particular actor's look, sound, charisma, rhythm, movement. Rather than you becoming Hamlet, Hamlet becomes you."

But how can a can-do, confident guy like Branagh play the hesitant hero?

"I hesitate plenty," says Branagh defensively. "I'm finally decisive, but I haven't met anybody who isn't full of anxiety and doubts and questions."

Branagh describes Hamlet as "an X-ray part that reveals your personality, if you choose to be as real as you can be."

Then, being Branagh, he doesn't hesitate to interview himself.

"Is Hamlet perennially melancholy? Certainly not in my case. Is he mad? Certainly not in my case. Is he a prince of manner and spirit? Yes, I think he is. Well, I try and do. Is he funny? Yeah, I try to make him funny. I think he's funny. In a full-length version, you can play all the contradictions in his character.

"It seems to me to be very human to be full of contradictions to be cruel and kind and witty and sour. My intention was to play all of those things to the extreme."

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