Entering Olivier's Area
San Diego Union-Tribune, November
Branagh says he had to enter
Olivier's area with Henry V'
Kenneth Branagh is the hottest
topic of conversation in the haughty halls of British theater
right now -- not only because he runs one of the country's best
new theater troupes, the Renaissance Theatre Company, but because
he seems to be moving into Laurence Olivier's territory.
With the century's predominant
actor scarcely in his grave, Branagh is peddling a new film of
Shakespeare's "Henry V," adapted, directed and acted
Olivier adapted, directed and
acted his own film version of the play during the darkest days
of World War II. Then, and now, it is generally considered one
of the best films of all time, a glorious triumph of art over
adversity that also manages to be fabulous entertainment.
Couldn't Branagh, who was only
27 when he undertook "Henry V," have found another
play to film?
"I've had an ongoing preoccupation
with the role since I was in drama school," he said here
this week, "though I always thought the idea of really doing
it was from Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. But people began taking me seriously
so, finally, I had to do it."
People took Branagh seriously,
perhaps, because of what he had already accomplished. A native
of Northern Ireland, he went straight from a fast-track career
at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to a major role on the West
End. Soon, he was showing up on stage and on television in roles
of increasing prominence.
After two years with the Royal
Shakespeare Company playing major parts, including Henry V, and
even writing a play himself, Branagh did a couple of films --
"High Season" and "A Month in the Country"
-- then launched his career as a producer with fellow actor David
Parfitt by establishing the Renaissance Theatre Company.
No, "renaissance" doesn't
refer to his personal career.
"The name came to me in
the middle of the night," he said. "Our company belief
is the reassertion of the actor's role. Not that the actor should
dominate the theater but that the actor should stop being lazy
and rise to a certain level."
Branagh and Parfitt illustrated
their beliefs by assigning productions to directors better known
as actors -- Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan. When
"Henry V" began to happen, all three of these, plus
Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Alec McCowen, Robert
Stephens and Richard Easton, became available for the film.
"The biggest flak I caught
over the film," said Branagh of the inevitable comparisons
with Olivier, "was that I made it at all. No matter if it
was good or not, they said, I shouldn't have done it. It was
Unlike Olivier's hymn to everything
English, Branagh's "Henry V" is more a story of a young
leader brought to abrupt maturity by the horrors of war. Both
versions are by necessity trimmed, but Olivier's cuts are designed
to emphasize the historic and patriotic aspects of the story
whereas Branagh's decisions tend to make it more naturalistic
Also popular. The film has done
well in England -- especially, says Branagh, in areas where the
company also played -- and is being released this week in the
United States. A San Diego engagement opens Dec. 15 at the Park
And, in January, Southern California
audiences will have a look at Branagh in the flesh when the Rennaissance
Theatre Company opens a 10-week engagement at Los Angeles' Mark
Taper Forum. The boss will stage a repertoire of two Shakespeare
plays -- "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's
Dream" -- and play the minor roles of Edgar and Peter Quince.
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