Kenneth Branagh Announces New West End Season Starring Judi Dench and Cinderella Lovers
Sir Kenneth Branagh Announces New Season of Five Plays, Starring Dame Judi Dench, Lily James - and Himself

The Telegraph, 17 April 2015
By Hannah Furness
* Thanks, Ngoc, Jane

He has already conquered Shakespeare on stage, taken on Hollywood as actor and director and been knighted for services to drama. Now, Sir Kenneth Branagh is to follow in the footsteps of some of Britain’s greatest theatre luminaries with his own season of works, directed by and starring himself.

Branagh has announced a whirlwind new season of five plays at the Garrick Theatre, created by his own theatre company in a tradition dating back centuries. He has called in some of Britain’s finest acting talent to help bring in the crowds, from Dame Judi Dench taking the stage in 'The Winter’s Tale' to Downton favourite Lily James.

The director himself is to star in four of his five plays, missing out only Romeo and Juliet in a season he hopes will attract a vibrant new audience to his works.

The move has more than a hint of the grand tradition of actor-managers, dating back to the 17th century, widespread by the 19th and made famous by the likes of David Garrick. Garrick, whose name graces the West End theatre, helped bring Shakespeare to the masses and performed in works by his own company. Sir Laurence Olivier continued the tradition of acting and directing simultaneously, performing in more than a dozen plays while head of the National Theatre.

“We’re not unhappy to be associated with the name of the man,” said Branagh, of the legacy of theatre offered to him by London producer Nica Burns. “I’ve been looking for a creative home, a building, to land in for projects I feel passionately about.

“It feels like a natural place to be to do what’s certainly an ambitious season but one we’re very, very excited about.”

Branagh, who has just finished a publicity tour for film 'Cinderella', will now temporarily swap Hollywood for a return to the West End, in a year-long residency with associates Rob Ashford and Olivier Award-winner Christopher Oram.

Dame Judi Dench is to return to 'The Winter’s Tale', Shakespeare’s tragicomedy, after an acclaimed performance in the late 1960s, to star at Paulina. Branagh will take the role of Leontes.

Branagh said the play had only “rarely” been put on in the West End, with the high-profile casting making it what he hopes will be a must-see. The show will run from October this year to January 2016. It will run in rep alongside a production of Terence Rattigan's 'Harlequinade'.

That play, described as “rarely seen”, tells the story of a theatre company attempting to put on 'The Winter’s Tale' and 'Romeo and Juliet', and will star many of the same cast members. Branagh will perform and co-direct.

He will also direct 'Romeo and Juliet', starring Lily James and Richard Madden, both fresh from their leading roles in 'Cinderella' and called in to help introduce a new generation to the works of Shakespeare.

“One would imagine that it might be very, very interesting for people who have seen Lily and Richard in 'Cinderella' to follow the next part of that conversation creatively,” said Branagh.

From March to April, he will appear with Rob Brydon in 'The Painkiller' by Francis Veber, a revival of the “comic tour-de-force” directed by Sean Foley.

The season will provisionally finish with 'The Entertainer', John Osborne's modern drama about the dying days of the music hall, with Branagh playing the lead character, Archie Rice.

If the run is successful, the director said, there will be space for a newly-commissioned work to follow. To begin with, he said, it might prove too risky to programme a new work at the start of the season, in a climate where people are becoming more selective about what they see.

“Historically it’s always been a gamble to do new work,” he said. “There’s a curious paradox of people being nervous about parting with their hard-earned cash to see new works, be it play, film or television,”

“In a world where we’re way ‘over-informationed’ it’s hard to find a clear, distinct way of describing what a new piece might be.

“The possibility of future seasons that might do that is exciting. But one step at a time.”

When asked about his casting choices, and how 80-year-old Dame Judi would fare after suffering macular degeneration, he said: “Judi is indefatigable and a passionate artist. Nothing gets in her way; nor will it get in her way. In relation to her various challenges, which she shrugs off, she just gets on with it, and we’ll be getting on with it with her.”

On the question of how he would cope with the gruelling year-long regime, he said: “A lot of vitamin C.

“It’s exciting. You’ve got to be in shape for it. I make sure I get out all the time to run, walk, stay healthy.

“We have a real commitment to that. I’m old enough to know how necessary that is next to the effort of the plays. I hope, as my mother would say, God spares me and all will be well in that regard.”

He added: “It feels like behind the season there’s a kind of energy and we hope that’s matched by energy and excitement from the audience.”

Tickets for productions go on sale today, with ten per cent being priced at £15.

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