Matt Trueman: We Need a New Branagh to Revitalise the West End

The, 22 September 2016
By Matt Trueman

So, that was the Kenneth Branagh season: greeted with such fanfare, sent off with scarcely a shrug. It’s a real shame. Branagh has an extraordinary ability to pull projects together and actors love working with him, but it’s hard to see his year at the Garrick as anything but a wasted opportunity.

'The Entertainer' summed up a lot of what was wrong with the rest. Too much looked inwards, with one eye on the theatre itself. Alongside Archie Rice, we got Ira Aldridge in 'Red Velvet' and 'Harlequinade'’s actor-manager Arthur Gosport. Its risks lay in resuscitating lifeless classics instead of creating new work (ironic given that Olivier relaunched himself with Osborne’s play), and the season was stuffed with stage staples – farces and some Shakespeare. Mostly, productions looked pretty and lacked purpose. It was hard not to detect a whiff of vanity. All the cheap tickets in the world won’t pull in new audiences if the offering doesn’t appeal.

This wasn’t Branagh’s first West End season. Back in 1988, still shy of his 30th birthday, he led the Renaissance Theatre Company into town with a trio of Shakespeares, including his second attempt at Hamlet (his first was at RADA). It was a huge success, pulling in a £385,000 advance – a figure Howard Panter claimed as a record for straight plays in the West End at the time.

Branagh was, as one newspaper put it, “a potent draw for young audiences”. He had had some screen success by then, notably the PBS mini-series 'Fortunes of War', but mostly, Branagh was seen as shaking up the stage. Earmarked for Royal Shakespeare Company stardom, he left Stratford to do his own thing and, in less than two years, Renaissance had stormed its way from the fringe into town.

It brought with it a pared-back aesthetic and a swaggering sensibility – the philosophy being ‘actors first’ – to an often dusty West End. The Observer’s revered critic Michael Radcliffe dubbed Branagh’s company “the liveliest new mainstream ensemble for some time”.

Is it time for a new Renaissance? Thanks to an influx of edgy subsidised work, the West End isn’t in the same doldrums, but the commercial sector could do with a jolt. While star-led theatre can be perceived cynically – actors parachuted in to pull in their fans – imagine what would happen if big-name actors took creative control and harnessed their fan-power for something bigger.

Could it work? Conditions are different today. Fees are much higher for a start, and the freshest work is director-led. But the real question is who? Benedict Cumberbatch, Carey Mulligan, Tom Hiddleston, Ruth Wilson? But why would they? Actors with the draw of Branagh’s have Hollywood at their feet. They can make in two months what they’d make in a year on stage – presuming things went well.

It’s a changed world. Once, stars committed to theatre long-term; now it’s something they dip into every few years. It’s a pity. We could dearly use a new Kenneth Branagh.

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