Baby Grand Old Man

Sunday Times, April 19 1992
by Paul Donovan

Kenneth Branagh, precocious young lion of British acting, is is juggling so many projects that, even for him, it is hard to keep track. Little wonder he looks tired.

The Renaissance Theatre Company, which he founded, is five years old next week. His new production of Hamlet will be broadcast on Radio 3 a week tonight, and he will repeat the role for the RSC this winter. Next month, he opens in Coriolanus at Chichester Festival Theatre. Between rehearsals, he's editing a new comedy film he has directed called Peter's Friends, to be released this autumn. It is Renaissance's second film and follows Henry V, which won him Oscar nominations for both best actor and best drector.

Next weekend's radio play has one of the most illustrious casts assembled in Britain in recent years. Three former Hamlets, for a start: Branagh, Sir John Gielgud (who this time plays the Ghost), and Deebi (udius). Not to forget Richard Briers (Polonius), Dame Judi Dench (Gertrude), Michael Elphick (First Gravedigger), Sir Michael Hordern (Player King), Emma Thompson (Player Queen), her younger sister Sophie (Ophelia) and Michael Williams (Horatio).

A co-production between Renaissance and BBC Radio, it runs just under four hours and is the first Hamlet that either the BBC or Branagh has done which uses the ull text, based on the First Folio of 1623. It goes out on the 60th anniversary of Gielgud's first radio Hamlet.

Branagh, 31, had three days of corn-coloured stubble and bags under his blue eyes when we met. He is softly spoken, and scrupulously well-mannered. ''I know people say I'm a workaholic,'' he says, ''but I don't remotely feel that way. We took three months off at the end of last year and went travelling round Ireland (he was born into a large Protestant family in Belfast, the son of a joiner) and when I finish my RSC Hamlet next spring, I'll take time off again.

''I took my cue from an interview I saw with Robert De Niro in which the interviewer said 'Why are you doing so much? Three or four films a year, you're never off our screens.' And De Niro said: 'Well, I feel on top of my game. It's an important time for me to be working.' That's how I feel, too.''

Branagh founded the Renaissance company with fellow actor David Parfitt, who was then playing the young farmer Tim Beacham in The Archers. ''My definition of success,'' he said at the time, ''is control.'' He was resurrecting the old Victorian and Edwardian tradition of actor-managers, but with the businesslike approach of the entrepreneurial 1980s. He quickly succeeded in attracting actors of the calibre of Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan.

The Prince of Wales, perhaps swayed by Branagh's electrifying performance as his distant ancestor, Henry V, at Stratford, agreed to become the company's patron. It was interesting that, in the course of a 50-minute conversation with Branagh, the only question he directly avoided was whether he had been to Highgrove. ''We tend to bump into each other,'' was his reply. ''He sees most of our things. He'll hear this Hamlet before it goes out. He's a great listener to literature, as well as a reader. Like the world at large, he's fond of talking books on tape. I think he's a terrific man, very genuine, and a thousand times more intelligen than people think.''

Renaissance has embraced both classics and new work, both here and abroad, and has concentrated on the accessible. There was a world tour of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream, sponsored by Burmah Oil, in which everyone received the same wage of Pounds 400 a week. Branagh played Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, which Dench directed. Another seasoned actor, Derek Jacobi, turned director for Renaissance's Hamlet, which went to Elsinore as well as the West End. It is a carousel, with the same group of Equity members constantly getting on and off. Peter's Friends, about six old friends reuniting on New Year's Eve in a country house, features Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson, and his mother-in-law, Phyllida Law, as well as chums such as Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton. Such an approach has brought sneering charges of nepotism and incestuousness, but it produces an environment Branagh finds congenial. It is, after all, his company, or rather half of it is. He and Parfitt are the two shareholders in Renaissance Theatre Company Ltd.

''Our main achievement is that we're sill here after five years and still enjoying it,'' he says, ''and building up a loyal audience in the regions. The other main achievement is with actors. I guess the most obvious example is Richard Briers, who has played Malvolio and Lear and Bottom and undergone a fairly radical change in terms of his career. He is so different from the man the public associates with The Good Life. What we have tried to achieve is a signature tune of clarity and non-pomosity.'' Branagh has seen to it that they have gone to Northern Ireland once a year, and set up a trust which helps gifted youngsters from both Ulster and the Irish Republic to study drama on the mainland. Both his films, Henry V and the Hitchcockian thriller Dead Again, were premiered in Belfast.

Hamlet is the centrepiece of Renaissance's birthday party. It was the first Shakespeare play Branagh saw, as a 15-year-old pupil at Meadway Comprehensive in Reading; he played Hamlet at Rada; after that he played Laertes to Roger Rees's Prince with the RSC; then he played the Prince again in the Renaissance stage productio in 1988; and now this.

''When you're 21 it's perhaps the adventure story, the romantic, noble, Jacobean revenge hero who appeals. Ten years on, it's more a story of a man who works though his problems to find a sense of inner peace. Exactly the same words you spoke the first time strike a deeper chord. In your early thirties your parents or grandparents start to go and you start to think more about death.

''Hamlet's journey through the play is the journey of a man finally able to say: 'If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.' Death truly is 'the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns'. Hamlet is a part which obsesses me, and I find death a subject of constant fascination and curiosity. The whole notion of mortality is what we are all obsessed with from the moment we arrive here. My intense enthusiasm for the play springs out of what light it sheds on all of that.''

Journalists have found Branagh's own life a subject of some fascination. In 1989 he married the witty and beautiful actress whom he had met while filming BBC television's Fortunes of War in Yugoslavia and Greece. The ''golden couple of showbusiness'', as the press called them, invited more than 200 guests to a lavish service of blessing at Cliveden. Both Branagh and Thompson are fiercely independent performers and, asked if they would like children, Branagh seems a mite discomfited.

''I like kids but, well, so many people can't have children and so many people have children who fall sick and there's so much mystery and luck attached to all of that that, yes, quietly it would be nice but at the same time I don't assume ... well, it's not quite on the dance card at the moment. We'll see. The whole process of life I find mysterious, and talking about it too much get worried in case the gods decide, 'No, you can't have one'. At the moment we're pursuing things that are very time-consuming and it wouldn't be fair to kids. Also I don't think we're quite ready. We're busy bees at the moment, busy bee. If it happens, it'll happen.'' The only time he mentioned his wife by name was in her capacity as an actress. He is happier discussing work: the Protestant work ethic is clearly of deep importance in his life, the drive to be useful.

Perhaps this helps to explain why Branagh is so drawn to decent characters. Henry V, Hamlet, Laertes, idealistic Guy Pringle in Fortunes of War. Even the Gestapo general he plays in a forthcoming Disney film, Swing Kids, eventually sees the light. A recent report that he had been approached to play Hitler is, he says, ''complete and utter fiction''. You cannot imagine Branagh as Hannibal Lecter, or Iago, Richard III or even Macbeth. He has been compared to Laurence Olivier but could not, one feels, ever play a Nazi torturer as Olivier did in Marathon Man. He has neither the tortured psychology nor, one suspects, any desire to plumb the soul's blackest depths.

Branagh does not quibble with this analysis. ''I am drawn to characters which offer something. For example, Peter's Friends is a tremendously uplifting and warm-hearted film, so that when the audience leaves the cinema they'll feel better about their lives. I feel that's an important thing to do, rather than illustrate another piece of appalling evil or wrongdoing.

''Coriolanus might be called a fascist, or ruthless or thuggish. Any attempt I've made to make him heroic the director, Tim Supple, is firmly squashing out of me. So there may be in me some sort of soft or romantic or hopeful quality about the human condition that I search for. I've certainly been drawn to plays like King Lear which are painful but uplifting. I do want to see the positive side of things. That's another thing that appeals to me about Hamlet, his incredible depression. And I feel that a lot. My desire for the other, the optimistic, is because one can get so terribly weighed down by how shitty the world is.''

Branagh is not, one feels, an actor consumed by inner turmoil. But that he is a consummate craftsman is not to be doubted, and the theatre is the better for his tireless and enlightened energies. A knighthood surely cannot be far off. The readiness is all.

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