Branagh To Go Back To the Bard

San Diego Union-Tribune, August 23 1991
by Arthur Salm

Writer/director/actor/wunderkind Kenneth Branagh looks relaxed and unhurried as he sits in a Paramount Pictures hotel suite. But as he talks about what he has done, is doing and plans to do in his astonishingly brief and brilliant career, his very presence seems almost contradictory:

How can he accomplish all that in one lifetime and still be sitting here, if only for an hour?

Branagh, after all, graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and within a few years had starred in the Royal Shakespeare Comany's "Love's Labour's Lost," "As You Like It," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Hamlet"; written and directed "Tell Me Honestly"; produced, directed and starred in "Romeo and Juliet"; co-founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, for which he directed "The Life of Napoleon" and "Twelfth Night" and wrote and starred in "Public Enemy"; directed and performed in a nine-month tour of "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

And, of course, adapted, directed and starred in the triumphant, post-Olivier film version of "Henry V," in which Branagh/Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech had many in his cinematic audience ready to rise from their seats to do battle at his side at Agincourt.

He's 29 years old.

Now he has directed and starred in "Dead Again," a contemporary mystery/love story with a supernatural edge. But Branagh, who plays a wiseguy American detective, doesn't see the film as a lightweight departure. Shakespeare, he pointed out, frequently dealt with ghosts.

"Our primal fascination with the supernatural, the otherworldly, is keen," he said. "I think that at the moment, in regard to reincarnation, it's another manifestation of the meaning' we're all searching for. The notion that a love in one lifetime that is ill-resolved can be resolved in another -- that feeling is something that goes very deep. It's something that gives substance and stability to this brief life we live."

For "Dead Again" Branagh rounded up his usual suspects -- Derek Jacobi, Richard Easton and Emma Thompson, all of whom were in "Henry V." (Thompson is also Branagh's wife.)

"I like to work with people I admire," Branagh explained. "And yes, one can build up an artistic family, and actors you get on with are rare. You can go further each time. If the people you work with have a shared history, it helps convey familiarity -- in families in Shakespeare, for example -- and you build an atmosphere of trust. It just makes artistic sense to have a central core. It means that you can start from a slightly different place, and that can help."

In the case of Branagh directing Derek Jacobi, it was simple turnabout: For the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jacobi had directed Branagh in "Hamlet" -- quite a thrill for Branagh, who at age 16 had first seen Jacobi in the title role of "I, Claudius" on television.

"He was brilliant in a field of brilliance," said Branagh of Jacobi and "Claudius," which is being repeated on KPBS.

One had to ask whether Jacobi's very Claudius-like moment in "Dead Again" was Branagh's directorial nod to that influential series. No, he insists, it was purely coincidence. (Still, it's bound to generate giddy shivers of recognition in all "Claudius" fans.)

Branagh is anxious to play Hamlet again -- on Broadway, if possible.

"It would be interesting to see whether a classic can still make it there," he said. "It depends on the actors, the place, the time. It wouldn't even have to be a period piece."

Branagh hasn't seen Zeffirelli's severely truncated "Hamlet" with Mel Gibson, but he says that for the cinematic audience the text has to be cut somewhat. Actually, uncut productions of "Hamlet" are rare (although Sledgehammer did one in San Diego last year). Branagh said he's never seen one. If he does produce it on Broadway, though, he says he'll try to do it uncut.

The next film he directs will also be Shakespeare -- "a comedy, but I won't say which one...

"I'd like to use some American actors. There's a quality to American acting, a kind of emotional fearlessness, that I'd like to inject. It would also be a signal: This is not a beast from another time -- it's a movie. Go see it.' "

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