Kenneth Branagh hopes to bring excitement over `Hamlet' to new generation

Philadelphia Daily News, January 23, 1997
by Gary Thompson

Before ``Hamlet'' transformed his life, Kenneth Branagh was like any other teen-ager - trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, in a way that involved doing as little actual work as possible. ``I did a lot of reading at age 13, 14, 15, and developed quite a strong imagination and an elaborate fantasy world of possibilities, all in the context of this central issue - what am I going to do with my life?'' said Branagh, in Philadelphia recently to promote his lavish new production of ``Hamlet.''

``I knew that I did not want to have an ordinary job, or what I considered to be an ordinary job, by which I mean anything in which I had to work with figures, because I have no mathematical capability at all,'' he recalled. ``All the sciences completely foxed me, and I didn't want to be in an office.''

That didn't leave young Ken many avenues of opportunity. Then one magical night, Branagh saw Derek Jacobi perform ``Hamlet'' on stage.

``I thought, `I can't imagine anything more glorious than being paid to do this.' Forget about payment - I just couldn't believe that this could be a job,'' Branagh said, laughing. ``Sometimes I still feel that way.''

Acting wasn't something Branagh had considered, because it was so far outside the work experience of his middle-class family.

``I felt as though a light went on,'' he said.

From that moment, Branagh did more than consider acting. He became obsessed with acting, with plays, with poetry. He walked around reciting Shakespeare. He began to see himself not as a passive consumer of literature but as someone who could re-imagine it, enact it, make it alive for himself and others.

``There was something so charged about seeing this play, live experience, and I remember being excited even though I didn't understand all the words. I knew what the actors meant even though I didn't understand what they were saying,'' Branagh remembered. ``It seemed just a limitless opportunity to express oneself, in a way that captivated me.''

In bringing ``Hamlet'' to the movies as a four-hour, wide-screen extravaganza, Branagh hopes to communicate that same sense of excitement to a new generation.

``Certainly I want to pass on that thrill I had as I watched it,'' he said. ``That's why I'm always pleased when I get that kind of reaction from young people, college students and the like.''

Branagh's spies tell him that in New York, where people have been lining up to see ``Hamlet'' since it opened in December, audiences represent people from all walks of life.

``A lot of pals have walked past the line and seen an octogenarian here, a 15-year-old there, people from all sorts of social groups,'' he said. ``The lines include a lot of young people, and I'm very heartened by that. I'm often stopped on the street by young people for whom it is suddenly not an odd or an uncool thing to be watching a Shakespeare film.'' Indeed, Shakespeare has rarely been more popular in the movie industry. Branagh's ``Hamlet'' closely follows ``Romeo and Juliet,'' ``Twelfth Night'' and two versions of ``Richard III.''

Shakespeare's enduring popularity, Branagh said, derives from his skill as an artist, and his profound understanding of human nature - an understanding that seems to require constant reinterpretation and revival. ``He continues to be very elusive, very hard to pin down. You can cite all sorts of textual evidence to say he was a fascist or a liberal or a misogynist or a warmonger, because his plays operate on so many different levels,'' he said. ``A play like `Henry V' can be seen to be very pro-war or very anti-war without bending the text in any way.

``As a result, those people who would wish to perhaps nail him as a particular type of thinker or writer, when they try and sort of squish him down in one hole, he pops up somewhere else.''

And of all of Shakespeare's plays, ``Hamlet'' remains the most intriguing, the most challenging for directors and actors.

``The play carries with it centuries of almost continuous productions, and yet retains this air of mystery, probably more than any other play. You don't recall people labeling any particular production as being definitive. They tend to say that about other plays, but they never say it about `Hamlet.'''

The play's awe-inspiring history makes ``Hamlet'' an intimidating challenge, especially for someone like Branagh, who is running out of chances to play the part, and who knows he will be compared to Olivier, to Jacobi, to other greats.

``You know you've got something that is bigger than anything else you can do. And from a practical standpoint, there is quite a lot to learn, quite a lot to shape, and you've got to keep all of it in your head and still remember how to do the sword fight,'' he joked. ``As an evening's work in your chosen profession, that's quite a summons.''

The role also has a unique way of baring a performer's soul.

``It's a personality part, not a hunchback and limp. You are very exposed - it becomes a naked evaluation of you as a person - you allow things to be funny if you find them funny. You emphasize things that draw you in - the relationship with the father, with women, your attitude toward betrayal. The play has to be inflected by you as an individual.''

Most actors are scared to death of Hamlet, even as they are drawn to the part.

``It's all very frightening, but those are the very things that make it attractive,'' he said.

``I don't want to get too theoretical about acting, because it's just a job, but there is a climbing analogy here. Hamlet is a little like Everest. Maybe you do it because it is there. You have to be a bit of an adventurer to have a go at it.''

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