Evening Standard, 19 February 2003
by Luke Leitch, Arts Reporter

Kenneth Branagh is to make his first appearance on the London stage for 11 years.

Over the last decade the 46-years-old actor - one of Britain's greatest - has directed and starred in film, TV and theatre. London, though, has not seen him since his 1992 'Hamlet' with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Now Branagh is to make his long-overdue return, starring in a modern production of a play so powerful, "it punches you in the face".

At the National Theatre this summer - in his first appearance on the country's most important stage - Branagh will play the title role in Edmond, American playwright David Mamet's shocking early play that follows a middle-class everyman's descent into madness, lust and murder. It will be directed by Edward Hall - son of Sir Peter - whose 'Macbeth' starring Sean Bean and Samantha Bond is a box-office hit in the West End Edmond is due to open in July as part of the NT's season of cheaply-priced productions. One third of the tickets for the Olivier Theatre will cost 25, and all the rest will be just 10.

The NT's artistic director Nicholas Hytner said: "Edmond is about an ordinary guy who gradually turns into a violent raging animal, and he spirals through several circles of urban hell to get there. It is as challenging a role as anything in contemporary theatre."

Hytner added: "It is a particularly savage play. As Edmond spirals into this terrible searing urban hell he tries to buy sex, and ends up murdering a pimp and an outof-work actress as the layers are peeled off him. He starts off an obedient middle-class white guy and turns into a great howling mass of misogyny, racism and violence.

"It is a play that punches you in the face."

Bringing actors of Branagh's calibre to the National Theatre is a priority for Hytner, who will formally succeed Sir Trevor Nunn as its artistic director in April.

He said: "I spoke to Ken very shortly after I was appointed and we starting talking about him acting and directing here."

Hytner, who directed The Madness of King George, said of Branagh: "He has always been a major energy in British theatre and film. His energy, intelligence and invention, as well as his experience and authority in a big theatre, is something I felt we really needed here. He is absolutely the kind of major, charismatic actor we want at the National. He is a stage animal."

Branagh is famous for his mastery of the great Shakespeare roles but Mr Hytner said his NT debut "will certainly be a departure".

The actor was quickly persuaded to take the part, however. Hytner said: "Dealing with people who've done movies, some of them simply turn into Americans and they don't ever give you a straight yes or a straight no - but Ken isn't like that, he's still a theatre man.

"The reason he wants to do the play - apart from being here at the National - is that it struck him with huge force. He responded to the extremity of Mamet's writing. Great plays take to their extreme the furies and insecurities that drive all of us to some degree or other - and great actors want to be in those great plays."

The highs and lows of Branagh's career

1982: Branagh makes his West End debut in Another Country - six weeks after graduating from drama school.

He goes on to wow audiences at the RSC and form the Renaissance Theatre Company with actor David Parfitt.

1988: Branagh ventures into film, starring in and directing Henry V. It is a huge success, but some critics accuse him of "hubris".

1991: Hollywood calls. He directs and stars in the thriller Dead Again opposite his then-wife Emma Thompson.

1996: directs and stars in Hamlet opposite Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal and Dame Judi Dench.

1998: Woody Allen persuades Branagh to star in Celebrity with Leonardo DiCaprio and Melanie Griffith.

2001: wins an Emmy for his performance as SS leader Heydrich in the TV drama Conspiracy.

2001: directs The Play What I Wrote in the West End - a huge success.

2002: plays Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.

2002: returns to his roots playing Richard III at Sheffield's Crucible - to rave reviews.

Career low: playing the baddy in the dire 1999 Will Smith film Wild Wild West.

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