Stop Bashing Branagh

Evening Standard (London), May 8 1992
by Michael Owen

Critics of the wunderkind actor and director would love to see him fall flat on his famous face. But now there is a swelling chorus of voices hitting back at the knockers and urging them to leave our Ken alone

IN ROLLED-UP shirt sleeves, jeans and loafers, Kenneth Branagh strolled through the spring sunshine splashed around Chichester Festival Theatre's forecourt, swapping jokes with fellow actors on how the previous night's show had gone and registering a cheery 'Hello, mate,' before sitting down to concentrate on the latest epic endeavour to be embraced by this hustling, one-man, cross-media industry.

The news is that after directing and starring in his Hollywood movie, Dead Again, and co-directing Uncle Vanya with Richard Briers in the title role, he has put himself back centre-stage for the first time in two years to play one of Shakespeare's most testing titans - Coriolanus.

Being Branagh, it will be a high-profile affair despite its out-of-town address. The Renaissance Theatre Company he runs with long-time colleague David Parfitt has captured the opening slot of Chichester's summer season where the first night crowd will gather on Wednesday, Prince Charles (Renaissance's patron) attends a gala on Saturday and the box office will be under siege until he ends his run in late June.

He has gathered some old friends around him, like Dame Judi Dench to play Volumnia and Briers as Menenius but, typically of this apparently nerveless, high-rolling gambler, has entrusted the enterprise to a virtually unknown director called Tim Supple.

He explains that choice away quite simply by saying: 'He's a very talented lad and it's our company's policy to encourage people to do the unexpected.'

Branagh's schedule this year looks a killer to lesser mortals. He has just directed a small-scale British film, Peter's Friends, follows Coriolanus with a film version of Much Ado About Nothing to be made in Italy, which he will direct and star in with his wife, Emma Thompson, then returns to the RSC to play a full-length, four-hour-plus version of Hamlet, staged by Adrian Noble, which opens at the Barbican and transfers to Stratford.

Despite this pressurised activity, he stays breezily relaxed, swears he is enjoying himself and remains outwardly unconcerned by the certain knowledge that sections of both his and my professions can't wait for him to come a cropper.

I asked him about the anti-Ken snipings. He shrugged. 'It's not a real problem. I suppose it's par for the course. What should I expect? That people should like me? It's all about art and people have subjective reactions. When Irving had the Lyceum running at the height of its success people were going round pamphleting against his style of acting.'

Then, seeing the hole he had dug for himself, quickly added: 'Not that I put myself in that league, of course.'

The truth is that Branagh remains eminently likeable, the matiness is not a posture and, like no one else around, he makes things happen. There has even been a backwash to the anti-Branagh movement on the theme of: 'For God's sake, let's leave Ken alone or we'll lose him.'

After Dead Again hit box-office gold in America, he certainly had enough offers to make his home - and an incalculable fortune - in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future and he admits the lure was real.

'The money was very tempting. I could have done a lot with that sort of cash but I've never done things for the sake of money. I simply didn't want to stay. My home is here. I'd miss my friends. The idea of being a Hollywood animal is not for me. I like being here. It's where I live.

'I came back wanting to work with Renaissance and wanting to do Coriolanus.'

He does give every sign of relishing his current role as a working actor. 'It's exactly what I wanted - a show where I was just an actor, where I wasn't carrying the creative burden and I had a director to tell me what to do. It's a chance to do what I do most naturally and, hopefully, best.

'I've had a renewal of the company experience as an actor. It's nice to be able to lark around and have a few jokes in the green room without worrying about the fact I'm wearing two hats.'

This young man, now 31, who dares to challenge the gods, did have one, perhaps significant second thought before he committed himself to a Shakespearean stage return. The other role he considered and rejected was Richard III.

Recalling the Olivier comparisons that followed his Henry V film, he grinned: 'The idea of doing Richard III did seem like putting my head fully on the block to be severed in a brutal fashion.'

Director Supple, who first met Branagh when he staged a John Sessions one-man show, offered another insight. 'He did think about Richard but went shy on it. He was not convinced about Coriolanus at first. He was not anti, but he took some wooing. I think he was wary of playing a part which was so unsympathetic, so abhorrent.'

Branagh has another view. 'The important thing about Coriolanus is that it is a very strong company play. We have an enormous crowd and they are part of the progress of the play.'

In addition to a 20-strong cast, 50 extras have been recruited from local townsfolk to swell the crowds of plebeians and Roman soldiers and their presence, combined with Chichester's unique thrust stage, predicates a potent dynamic to the production.

Playing the hero with feet of clay, Branagh is meanwhile having his own problems. 'Quite frankly, it's the hardest thing I've ever done in Shakespeare. The language is tough and, to be honest, hard to understand. There is no lyricism, the rhythms are difficult. You just hope that by playing it with heart and passion you can make it clear.'

With the Much Ado film and Hamlet to come, his commitment to Shakespeare is unswerving. 'It's the communicative power of Shakespeare that is so compelling. I'm getting letters from Newcastle and all over the place asking why we are not taking Coriolanus on tour. The sheer economics of a show this size say we can't. So the old missionary zeal takes over and we'll do the film of Much Ado.'

He admits the attraction of the piece is mainly in that it has not been filmed before. 'No comparisons. Yes, that's a relief.' He is still completing the cast but it is likely to include Gerard Depardieu and some high-profile Americans as well as Renaissance regulars.

'Films are expensive so there is box-office pressure on casting but I actually want to have different accents - European, American, black - to make the point that it is for everyone. I don't want it to be insular. I want it to be as real as possible.

'Much Ado is also very pertinent about love, however cliched that sounds, and says something about how important that power is. I feel a need right now to send out a positive message. I think we need it.'

He quotes the same motive about the recently completed film, Peter's Friends, to be released in the autumn. 'The film is a personal statement about the importance of friendship and enjoying it as it happens and not thinking about some sort of race you are in for achievement or whatever.'

His decision to return to Hamlet, after playing it five years ago under Derek Jacobi's direction, came as a surprise. 'It just felt right. The first time you play these roles it's mostly a question of getting through it. Now, perhaps, I'll be able to bring something else to bear. I feel a bit more fit for it and it will be pretty well the full version.'

We talked about his Hollywood experience and he carefully refined his thoughts about films. 'I'm not a pure director and it will be some time before I regard myself as a film director per se. But if I am able to make films there is much more point in doing it over here because everyone knows how hard it is to make a British film. It's the old Puritan work ethic, I suppose.'

And with his sleeves still firmly rolled up, he strode off back to work.

DAME Judi Dench's brow furrowed forlornly. 'It's the English disease. I know no other country like it for this sort of thing.' Richard Briers, chivvying busily at her side, weighed in: 'It makes me so angry, it's all so unnecessary and I don't like it.'

The subject of their joint concern was the epidemic of Branagh-bashing which has followed the progress of our Ken and which ranges from charges of rampant ego and o'er-vaulting ambition to being pilloried for having red hair and thin lips.

Mr Briers wanted to set the record straight. 'What does he do? He creates employment, he is dedicated to Shakespeare, he's a workaholic, he makes very little money because most of it goes back into the company. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to knock someone who can do these things. In my book, he's heroic.'

Both Briers and the Dame have reason to be grateful to the young Irishman who barnstormed out of Rada to become a new theatrical force in the land, but it did not detract from the merit of their case.

Branagh took Briers away from TV situation comedy and cast him as a classic actor in roles like Malvolio, King Lear and Uncle Vanya. The actor says quite simply: 'He has given me a new lease of life.'

Dame Judi was persuaded into directing for the Renaissance company and staged its Much Ado About Nothing production before going on to direct The Boys From Syracuse in the Open Air Theatre last summer.

She said: 'Directing was something I'd never ever thought of doing until Ken suggested it. To be honest, I still can't say I enjoy it wholeheartedly but I find it a terrific help when I'm back on the other side as an actress.'

The only difference between the two is that Mr Briers knows he has been hired for Branagh's film of Much Ado while Dame Judi is still waiting. She said: 'He hasn't said anything yet but I'm spending a lot of time hanging round his dressing room door.'

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