By Mark White
Reviews and Blurbs
Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 2006
By Bruce Elder
Is Branagh the Greatest Interpreter of Shakespeare Since Laurence Olivier?
Olivier? This question is central to an understanding of the way
historian Mark White has written this very detailed and well-researched
There is no doubt where White stands. He is an unashamed admirer of
Branagh and he loves the idea of a working-class boy from Belfast, who
grew up in Reading, being such a precocious talent that his first film,
Henry V, in which he starred and directed, was made when Branagh was only
White is in awe of Branagh's technical acting skills. But more than
simply developing a thesis about Branagh's genius, he tries to dissect
why the English have problems with great talent and why they need to
engage in savage personal attacks.
The result is a fine and engrossing biography of a gifted actor who did
much to revolutionise the way movies were made of Shakespeare's plays.
British Theatre Guide, 6 December 2005
By Philip Fisher
Kenneth Branagh is an amazing artistic and perhaps human phenomenon. Still
only in his mid-forties, he is fully deserving of a biography exploring his
life to date and, compared with footballers or other sportsmen, has fitted
in so much more that should be of interest to a wide audience.
In part, this is because he was a prodigy who achieved far more by the time
that he was 30 than the average thespian manages in a lifetime. From a very
early stage, he was likened to Lord Olivier as an actor. Comparisons of
this type are rarely helpful and in this case proved a real millstone for
the young pretender. However, Branagh's remarkable versatility means that
in the widest sense he really could eventually be seen as having taken on
the mantle of his illustrious predecessor.
Mark White might seem a strange person be writing a biography of a
latter-day matinee idol. He is an academic who teaches history and has
written four previous books, all of them connected to President Kennedy and
the Cuban missile crisis.
His main credential for writing this unofficial but encouraged biography is
an appreciation of his subject that can border on hero-worship. Indeed, he
describes the actor-director as the greatest Shakespearean of his age and
"would argue that his 'Henry V' and his performance in it have not been matched.
Despite the evident dangers of drooling excessively, White manages to write
a reasonably balanced book, which does not hide some of Branagh's less
attractive traits and a number of unsuccessful career and life choices.
Kenneth Branagh was born in Northern Ireland and, as a result of the
Troubles, his family moved to Reading while he was still a child. He was
always driven and there is little doubt, once he set his sights on becoming
an actor, that not only would he get accepted by RADA but also come out at
the other end with a gold medal as the pick of his year.
Before he even graduated, he was appearing on Shaftesbury Avenue as one of
a talented team of young actors in Julian Mitchell's 'Another Country'. From
there, his star kept ascending for the next decade.
At the RSC, he demanded and was given the role of 'Henry V' and in no time
comparisons with Olivier were flooding out. Soon, he was working in
television and film, had created his Renaissance Theatre Company and become
regarded as the great star of his generation.
His fame was substantially built on his decision, still in his mid-twenties
to take on 'Henry V' on film and to make a major success of it both as
director and actor. This was the start of his mission to bring Shakespeare
to the people, who were surprisingly receptive, particularly to his
charming adaptation of 'Much Ado About Nothing'.
A credible argument is put forward to suggest that commencing with 'Henry V',
Branagh has heralded the greatest age of Shakespeare on film that has so
far been known, following a long, fallow period after Roman Polanski's 'Macbeth'.
He was not shy in courting publicity and his marriage to actress Emma
Thompson leads the biographer to describe them as "The Beckham and Posh
Spice of their day". A more accurate comparison might have been that with
his patron and friend, Prince Charles and his troubled marriage with the
late Princess of Wales. From there, Hollywood beckoned, as he became
director and double star, with Miss Thompson also playing two roles, in
After almost unbounded success, it was perhaps inevitable, knowing the
nature of the British press that this young man would give his biographer
the opportunity to write a painful chapter entitled "Backlash". While the
American press has generally been sympathetic to Branagh, their British
counterparts whether in theatre, on film or in the gossip columns have
loved sniping at the ginger-haired, working-class boy who attempted to take
on the world.
This eventually seems to have got through and pained a man who had no
notion of failure and expected everyone to believe in him. This
single-minded man also deserved his success, partly for his artistic genius
but more for an incredible work ethic and speed of mind, without which he
could never have achieved so much, so soon.
Branagh then faced some commercial and artistic disasters in his thirties,
not all of them media generated, but has seemingly emerged as an older,
wiser and happier man.
In recent years, he has had a number of film successes including 'Rabbit
Proof Fence' and one of the Harry Potter films, worked in theatre, acting in
David Mamet's 'Edmond' at the National Theatre and directing The Right Size
in 'The Play What I Wrote', which won over both the West End and Broadway.
According to Mark White, he was also seriously considered for the position
of artistic director at the RSC when Adrian Noble resigned.
It will be fascinating see which way Kenneth Branagh's career develops over
the next couple of decades. His biographer is tipping him as a potential
leader of either the National Theatre or the RSC, citing his organisational
skills combined with the artistic ones that could make him a major success
in either role. There is also a reasonable possibility that he could go
back to Hollywood as director, star or both, or lead a new renaissance in
the British film industry. One thing is certain, we have not heard the last
of this very driven Northern Irishman.
From The Independent:
Kenneth Branagh by Mark White (Faber, £17.99)
is an authoritative account of the actor-director's career, which pays
tribute to his achievement in popularising Shakespeare on screen.
From What's On Stage
No actor of Kenneth Branagh’s generation achieved so much so rapidly. And yet no actor of his generation received such relentless criticism. Mark White explores this paradox in a fascinating new biography about Branagh’s meteoric rise and the backlash that accompanied it.
From humble beginnings, Kenneth Branagh drove himself to dizzy heights of accomplishment. By twenty-one he had starred in a West End hit. At twenty-three he was playing Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company. By twenty-six he had established his own theatre company. Shortly after that he directed and starred in a movie version of Henry V, the start of a series of Shakespeare films that resulted in him being viewed by many as the leading interpreter of Shakespeare in the world. No actor of his generation achieved so much so rapidly. And yet no actor of his generation received such relentless criticism. Mark White explores this paradox in a new biography of Branagh. Based on extensive research in previously
untapped archival materials and on numerous interviews, White traces the vicissitudes of Branagh's career, examining his meteoric rise and the backlash that accompanied it.