Kenneth Branagh Returns to the Stage, With More Roles

New York Times, 25 October 2015
By Roslyn Sulcasoct
Thanks, Ngoc

A crescendo of caterwauling sounded through the thin walls of the room that Kenneth Branagh was using as a makeshift office. Seated in one of many small chairs with little built-in desks, clearly salvaged from a school classroom and stacked around the perimeter, Mr. Branagh laughed. “I just want to point out that did not come from our company,” he said.

That would be the Kenneth Branagh Theater Company, a new ensemble that Mr. Branagh has spent around two years putting together, and which began previews of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” here on Oct. 17 at the Garrick Theater in the West End.

It is the first production in a seven-play yearlong season that includes a Terence Rattigan double bill, Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet,” Francis Veber’s “The Painkiller,” Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and John Osborne’s “The Entertainer.”

For slightly more than a year, Mr. Branagh, 54, will wear the multiple hats of leading actor, director and company manager alongside the stars Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Richard Madden, Lily James and Zoë Wanamaker, as well as actors straight out of drama school.

The Irish-born, English-accented Mr. Branagh is internationally famous as a stage and screen interpreter of Shakespeare, and as a deft straddler of the high-low culture divide, with movie blockbusters like “Thor” and “Cinderella” on his directorial résumé.

But for eight weeks before the Garrick opening, Mr. Branagh, 25 actors and his creative collaborators had been installed in this modest community center (with the occasional strange screeching) near Regent’s Park in North London, preparing for the project that he described as “a continuation of things I’ve been drawn to through most of my career.”

Craggy and bearded, Mr. Branagh is clearly all about the work, with a slightly terrifying intensity of focus, leavened by an occasional self-deprecating remark about his slightly terrifying intensity of focus: “I may have to do yoga because it clears my mind for working,” he said.

This is not Mr. Branagh’s first ensemble venture. In 1987, he and David Parfitt founded the Renaissance Theater Company, which toured “Romeo and Juliet” and “Twelfth Night” to great acclaim and offered actors like Ms. Dench, Mr. Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan the chance to direct Shakespeare.

Many of the artists that Mr. Branagh worked with some 30 years ago at Renaissance, including the composer Patrick Doyle, the producers Marilyn Eardley and Ed Snape, the Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson, as well as the actors Michael Pennington and Ms. Dench, are with him now.

“Renaissance created a lot of relationships,” Mr. Branagh said. “That played a big part in how this could happen now. It feels like an ongoing relationship with a creative family.”

He said that the idea of forming a new company had been “marinating” for a long time and that the time seemed right after the lengthy “Cinderella” shoot. His extended immersion in film — his appearance in “Macbeth” in 2013 was his first stage outing in 10 years — “just happened,” he said. “To my surprise film took over, but there were always a number of plays I wanted to work on, and I was continuing to have conversations with people like Judi about Shakespearean acting. All of these things were active and seemed to be wanting to happen now.”

Mr. Branagh approached Ms. Eardley and Mr. Snape, who set about looking for a steady home. “You can be like an airplane circling, waiting for a landing spot,” Mr. Snape said. The landing spot turned out to be the 700-seat Garrick, owned by Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer.

“Ken auditioned the theater,” said Ms. Burns, who has known Mr. Branagh since he was in his 20s. “He is meticulous, nothing escapes his eagle eye, and that applies to everything, which is why the work is so good. We committed a year ahead for a yearlong run, and we would normally want to have a lot of detail about productions, but we didn’t ask any of the normal questions, because, why would you?”

Inspired by the project, Ms. Burns and Mr. Weitzenhoffer decided to go ahead with what she described as “a sumptuous refurb,” upgrading technical capacities, redoing the backstage area, repainting, wallpapering and regilding the theater’s beautiful decorative plasterwork. “We are up to 2.5 million pounds,” Ms. Burns said cheerfully. (That’s about $3.85 million.)

Rob Ashford, who co-directed “Macbeth” with Mr. Branagh, is co-directing “The Winter’s Tale” and “Harlequinade,” one of the Rattigan plays, and directing “The Entertainer.” Mr. Branagh is appearing in all three productions as well as in “The Painkiller” — but not in “Romeo and Juliet,” which he is directing. The young lovers will be played by his “Cinderella” stars Ms. James and Mr. Madden.

Mr. Branagh said he planned the season around the plays; casting came later.

The company’s casting director Lucy Bevan, who also worked on “Cinderella,” said it was all about building a company. “Part of the auditioning experience was seeing if people had the ability and were able to take direction, but also if they would be compatible,” she said.

The result, Mr. Branagh said, is “a leanish, meanish group” that is small enough to stay personal.

The combination of young actors and veterans generated a special energy: “Sometimes you can spend a long time trying to teach and explain,” he said, “and sometimes you just have Judi Dench in the room.”

Mr. Pennington, a longtime member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, said that Mr. Branagh ran “an extremely efficient machine.” Actors were required to learn their lines before rehearsals began, he said, adding that isn’t always the case, and maximum use was made of a day that began at 9 a.m. and ended at 6 p.m. “He has handpicked a company, so that wherever you look, someone is doing good work,” Mr. Pennington said. “That’s not always the case in these big productions.”

With his new troupe, Mr. Branagh has placed himself within the sterling British tradition of the actor-manager, and has invited comparisons with Laurence Olivier, whom he played in the film “My Week With Marilyn.”

Olivier also ran his own company, starred in its productions and famously performed in “The Entertainer.”

Asked how he felt about these comparisons, Mr. Branagh was silent for a moment. “It’s inevitably the tradition I find myself in, but I think there is quite a lot of imposed perspective here,” Mr. Branagh said. “For good or ill, there are huge concentrations of attention on actors of different generations, and Olivier, who bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus, had that to the max. Anyone who has some prominence or does similar things has been measured in tough ways against him.”

And what of the everyday headaches and personnel issues that come with running a company? Mr. Branagh said that he didn’t expect to be everyone’s friend.

“My default is to try to be an equal collaborator,” he said. “But I know in reality, you can’t be all things to all people. There is a level of separation that is fine. My job is to make them work as happily and as well as possible, and let Shakespeare and Rattigan provide all the fun.”

“The Winter’s Tale” will be broadcast in movie theaters worldwide on Nov. 26 and on Nov. 30 in the United States.

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