The Hyping of Kenneth

The Economist, October 7 1989

CONSPICUOUS achievements of the young English actor Kenneth Branagh (are there any, one wonders, that are inconspicuous?) include a BBC television series, "The Fortunes of War"; highly acclaimed performances of Hamlet and Henry V; the title role in a new film of "Henry V", opening this week; and a presumptuously titled and hastily written biography, "Beginning", * out last week. In 1987, rejecting early fame at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, his won unconventional assembly of the foremost Shakespearean actors; the company has given Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins, among others, their first stab at directing.

All in all, the Branagh list is remarkable, even sickening. He is still not 29.

Now that he is a pin-up, with glossy magazines elbowing to interview him, it may be time for a pause. He admits that he has overstretched himself. For two years he has held down three full-time jobs -- managing, acting and directing -- simultaneously.

His company is short of money. It was this that impelled him into writing, for a 50,000 advance, an impetuous torrent of anecdote that conveys brilliantly, if none too smoothly, the pace and desperation of a young actor's life. The impression Mr Branagh gives his readers is that good luck and a good nerve are the foundations of his talent. Playing Henry V in 1984, Mr Branagh was bold enough to ask Prince Charles to illuminate the feelings of a prince. His subsequent performance was a triumph, and Prince Charles is now patron of his company.

If Mr Branagh is to be the next Olivier, as critics have already suggested, he now needs to concentrate his energies. This is easier said than done; he is fast becoming an institution. "Napoleon", for example, an immensely witty and superficial one-man play that is just transferring to the West End, boasts that it is "Directed by Kenneth Branagh" in letters every bit as high as those for the star, John Sessions. Mr Branagh admits that his role was limited to toning Mr Sessions down, "playing the thick fourth-former", in effect, "to John's PhD".

Mr Branagh is well aware of the dangers of name-merchandising. "It is clear to me in retrospect", he writes, "that my success has not been accompanied by any real sense of sustained enjoyment or achievement. I have never given myself a chance to make any serious assessment of my work, and I have thus denied myself man chances to improve as an actor, which now stands as my primary concern.

Can he keep it so? Adrian Noble, a director at the RSC, once warned Mr Branagh in rehearsal "to try less hard to be liked". Being liked, however, is what makes actors tick.

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