Why We Should Be Comparing Kenneth Branagh to Laurence Olivier
As Kenneth Branagh prepares to pick up his special Olivier Award on Sunday, Sarah Crompton looks at how the accolade is richly deserved
What's On Stage, 7 April 2017
My friend Jane says the phrase she most hates in the English language is "too clever by half". "How can anyone ever be too clever," she announces, with the firm conviction of someone who herself is exceptionally bright.
I often think of that when I think of Kenneth Branagh, an actor, director and entrepreneur whose career was once blighted by the sense that somehow he was simply too good and too ambitious to be true. More than anyone in the British thespian world, he has often been a victim of tall poppy syndrome – a desire to cut his plans and his dreams down to size.
I've never met the man – though we have talked on the telephone – so I have absolutely no idea if any of this was deserved. But from my point of view he has always seemed someone whose belief in British theatre and commitment to it should be applauded to the rafters rather than mocked by dubbing him a luvvie.
So I for one am very glad that his mantelpiece is finally heaving with lifetime achievement awards – and that his special prizes from WhatsOnStage last year and the Evening Standard theatre awards earlier this, are now being matched by one from the Olivier Awards that will be presented this Sunday.
Of course, the presentation cements finally the yoking with Laurence Olivier which dogged Branagh from the very earliest years of his career when he was somehow regarded as presumptuous for making a film of 'Henry V' that rivalled Olivier's. It's led to some particularly unpleasant stories down the years, including one that claimed he was barred from Olivier's memorial service.
Yet he didn't display temerity, but respect. As a young man, growing up in Belfast, Branagh was always a student of theatre history; it is one of the most endearing things about him. And that 'Henry V', grimy, mud-splattered and walking on the edge of disillusion, was as much a beacon for his (and my) generation, as Olivier's gloriously inspiring version had been for his. Indeed Branagh's influence as a reader of Shakespeare persists. His film of 'Hamlet' is still my 17 year-old niece's favourite, a model of clarity.
As a producer, his constant desire to present the best of classic theatre in a commercial context, which spans his early years when he founded the Renaissance Theatre Company and extends to his latest venture in a season at the Garrick Theatre last year, is entirely to be applauded and has – in many ways – been more successful than Olivier's own ventures in that sphere. This is not a judgement Branagh himself would agree with; he told an interviewer last year that "frankly, in any kind of comparison, I'll be the first to say, hats off to Sir Laurence, you win."
I'm not so sure. I have loved watching Branagh down the years and he has given performances that are indelibly branded in my memory: that thrilling Henry V at the age of 23, an incredibly brave and dangerous Ivanov; a heart-rending but furious Leontes last year in 'The Winter's Tale'. I missed his Macbeth at the Manchester Festival, but those who saw it were overwhelmed by its impact.
His respectful nurturing of the late careers of Judi Dench (who made her directorial debut with Renaissance), Richard Briers (who escaped the burden of being a comedy actor) and Derek Jacobi (who also both directed and acted under the Renaissance banner) has been a wonderful thing.
Of course, that doesn't mean everything he has ventured has been touched with gold. (I was desperately disappointed by his performance in 'The Entertainer'). But his willingness to keep going, to put himself and his ideas on the British stage, when the siren lure of Hollywood must be very strong, is a cause for celebration. So on Sunday I will be standing and cheering. Branagh deserves mentioning in the same breath as Olivier. He is a good thing.