Renaissance Man Ends Feud With the RSC

Evening Standard (London), December 3 1992
by Michael Arditti

STEVEN BERKOFF may have written a book entitled I am Hamlet, but few have pursued the part as obsessively as Kenneth Branagh. It was a school trip to the Oxford Playhouse to see Derek Jacobi as the Prince that whetted his appetite for acting. At Rada, asked to contribute to a royal gala, he unhesitatingly chose the 'rogue and peasant slave' soliloquy.

In his last term at the school, he played the role proper, and chose it again in 1988 for the ground-breaking Renaissance Theatre tour. Earlier this year, it was his first radio production, with a cast which included, symbolically, Jacobi as the King and Sir John Gielgud - 'the greatest Hamlet of the century' - as the ghost.

Now, at 32, he is rehearsing his fourth Hamlet at an age when many actors are considering their first. 'When you're 21 it's the adventure story, the romantic, noble, Jacobean revenge hero who appeals. Ten years on, it's more a story of a man who works through his problems to find a sense of inner peace.'

Branagh's own inner peace, according to his critics, has always seemed singularly undisturbed. This is the tyro who felt ready to sum up his life in an autobiography written at the startlingly precocious age of 28.

His 'rep' of actors, including his wife Emma Thompson and her Cambridge friends, has been lambasted as a cosy coterie, a luvvies' nest. But in the covetous world of theatre, where Branagh's career has been abused for its ambition, it has also been admired for its range. Success is now crucial, for, despite all the newsprint devoted to Branagh the mogul, a genuine Renaissance man, there has of late been less in favour of his acting. Here is his chance to confound his critics and claim the crown.

Hamlet is an outsider, a reluctant presence at Elsinore, who longs to resume his independent life. Seven years ago, after his previous stint at the RSC, Branagh made a similar bid for freedom, making no secret of his disaffection with the company, in particular the inaccessibility of its directors.

He painted unflattering portraits of Terry Hands on the stage, in his one-act play, Tell me Honestly, which lampooned the annual interview every actor had with his boss, and Trevor Nunn on the page, in his early autobiography, in which he compared him to an unctuous Uriah Heep.

Many, not least Branagh himself, wondered how he would be welcomed back into the fold, but his reception reassured him. 'I admit I was nervous. But I've been treated with great warmth. Most of the frustrations I felt last time were due to me. I had pretty unreasonable expectations.'

His success in establishing his own company, Renaissance, as a major force, first in British theatre and more recently in films (particularly the current success, Peter's Friends), initially depended on persuading three star actors, Dame Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan, to make their directing debuts. He is our prime exponent of 'actor-power'; so how is he responding to the more director-orientated RSC?

'I find it very refreshing to come at things from different angles. What actor-directors have is a very strong sense of what it's like to be doing it. They anticipate a range of problems and possibilities. Like Derek, who'd played the part and helped me with the pacing - not to shoot my bolt too early.

'The thing about Adrian Noble is that he relishes acting; he doesn't, like so many directors, see it as getting in the way.'

It was Noble who directed Branagh's Stratford Henry V and developed the anti-romantic concept that was central to his subsequent film. Noble is clearly someone Branagh trusts. 'The great excitement for me is to be here without responsibility for the production or financial concerns, at the service of someone I regard as a great director and a friend, to put my knowledge of the part at his disposal - to be directed.'

To which end he has put all his other projects on hold. And he acknowledges that the overload in the past may have caused his performances to suffer. The tragedy of his Romeo seemed to be less the loss of Juliet than the simultaneous shooting of a Month In The Country, while the single-mindedness of his Coriolanus was dissipated in post-production on Peter's Friends. 'Believe me, I won't be jobbing in this Hamlet. My guts are in the role.'

The question is whether it's the right role. In all the lazy comparisons with Olivier, which he himself rightly dismisses - and a more pertinent one would surely be with the Stratford director, Hollywood actor and Compass Theatre founder, Sir Anthony Quayle - the distinction has often turned on Olivier's dark side and his own essential niceness . . . and for the first time in our talk, that niceness fades.

'This is what Hamlet himself complains about when Guildenstern tries to pluck out the heart of his mystery. How can you expect to know? People do not live in one dimension. If you didn't have a dark side, you couldn't play them. I don't know how people can say 'he's just a nice person, just a decent person'; I find it impossible to say that about anyone.'

One element in the play links with his own background - an Ulster Protestant family who came to England when he was nine to avoid the Troubles - and that is religion. 'The dread in the play about an 'undiscovered country' is a very powerful thing. When I was little in Belfast, I was told at Sunday school that when I died I would be placed on a road, where I'd walk for a long time until I came to a fork and would have to decide which way to take. Heaven would be straighter and more inviting and Hell would be winding, but that would be it.

'That haunted me. Two nights later I woke up, terrified that I wouldn't know which road to take. I was disturbed even then by the way it had been put in my mind. It seemed so unfair. It distilled a kind of fear and, pretty soon, suspicion.

'In this play there is a fundamental investigation into people's concern with what happens when we die. Hamlet resentfully finds himself with a set of codes about life and death. He bridles against them and has to find his own version of how to act. My interest in it is absolutely keyed to that moment in Belfast.'

He is adamant that an equally personal impetus lies behind all his work, a $ 50 million American film as much as a small-scale Renaissance tour. He insists that the movie of Frankenstein he plans to shoot after finishing Hamlet is similarly motivated - 'It's by no means the first big picture I've been offered; but it contains ideas I consider important' - and he sees a link between the two projects.

'There's a big connection between Hamlet and Frankenstein. They're both concerned with issues of life and death - in Frankenstein it's with prolonging life - which are very pertinent today. We're getting nearer to the time that they'll be able to freeze and reanimate you; it's a great moral debate. And it's the meat on the bones of a great yarn that once again attracts me.'

After that, he is determined to take a sabbatical. For whatever he is bringing to Hamlet, Hamlet has brought home to him a sense of limited time. 'This play makes it clear to you that you must live in the here and now.'

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