Branagh, A Star By Stealth

Financial Times (London), August 5 1989
by Michael Coveney

Michael Coveney talks to the man behind the Renaissance Theatre

"I have no interest in making money, and I am not sufficiently aggressive or hard-nosed to be some titanic showbiz mogul. Writing interests me, and directing is another facet of being an actor. I am totally absorbed by the various projects of Renaissance Theatre Company, but I cannot imagine doing any of these things without, at the same time, acting my head off somewhere."

"Somewhere" from Monday will be the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, where Kenneth Branagh leads the Renaissance revival of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger that played triumphantly in Belfast two months ago before coming for one night to the London Coliseum. The Belfast performances were give for local charities, the Coliseum one for Friends of the Earth. The Lyric will be the stomping ground of the Jimmy Porter Osborne rates the best since Peter O'Toole, but only for four weeks. In the interests of permanency, Judi Dench's production has been filmed for Thames Television in just two weeks flat, and is broadcast next Thursday.

Branagh has hardly drawn breath since he left RADA with the Bancroft Gold Medal in 1981, but this past year has been particularly hectic. Just before Christmas he completed editing the film version of Henry V which went to Cannes and opens in London in October. Since then, he has written a volume of autobiography, Beginnings, which he put up for auction and sold for 50,000 Pounds (pds) to Chatto and Windus. It comes out on September 28. The next Renaissance productions will be King Lear with Richard Briers and A Midsummer Night's Dream to be first seen in Australia in the New Year. At some stage, he might well find time to marry Emma Thompson, whose Alison in Look Back is an equal partner in tragic inevitability.

Still only 28, Branagh has been dubbed the new Olivier, and in the wake of the great man's death, it is worth pondering the residual validity of that tag. Like Olivier, (and unlike, say, Antony Sher or Simon Callow) he is not an intellectual and favours clean, unstuffy Shakespeare that chimes with a renewed public (and, in certain Bardophiliac quarters, critical) appetite for work unadorned with "concepts." He is a born team captain with a mercurial appeal to both colleagues and audiences. He is cocky. Above all, he seems to fulfil the emblematic function of a star in the manner of the young Olivier and Burton, though without any noisy animalism on stage or screen. Branagh is a star by stealth, and was the moment he hit the West End stage opposite Rupert Everett in Julian Mitchell's Guy Burgess public school play, Another Country.

His Jimmy, like his Touchstone, is really a vaudevillian turn, making the character's affliction something much deeper than a social chip on the shoulder. The tirades become an aspect of spiritual fulfilment, a series of tests by which Jimmy defines his own vitality. This gives the performance a sulphurous theatrical quality almost at odds with the actor's seemingly casual technical expertise. Venomously well-timed, Jimmy's outbursts are pitched for an audience with a wink, a shuffle and a wry, self-lacerating humour. I had never before realised to what extent the play is about the miseries of confinement in a small room; nor how funny it was.

Branagh himself is wary of too much theorising, on acting or anything else. "I am a good sight-reader and I am always picking things up, like a magpie. I like the idea of working towards a seamless technique. Very rarely do I see histrionic acting that I really love. An exception would be Anthony Hopkins in Pravda, where all the tricks and the voice were rooted in a deep understanding of the character of a vile newspaper proprietor. I love Hopkins on film, and I love Judi Dench, too; the way they have of appearing to do nothing but of telling the whole story."

All actors learn from watching others, of course, but Branagh has probably learned more, and more quickly, than most. But there is steel and purpose, too. As his book reveals, he wrote very early on to many of the distinguished actors he now employs in his Renaissance Theatre projects as directors and bit players in Henry V. When playing Henry for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 (the same season as Sher's Richard III) he sought and gained an audience with Prince Charles to check out the loneliness of life at the top. "The play is about a young monarch achieving maturity but at some cost to himself. We are addicted today to the media images of people who make decisions that affect hundreds of thousands of lives.

"The Olivier film did not touch on this because it was not what the English public wanted to see at the time. In fact, Churchill asked Olivier to cut certain bits - the conspiracy scene, the speech to the Governor of Harfleurs about putting children on spikes - so as not to undermine morale. Now is the right time to explore the paradoxical aspect of Henry's character."

The ordinariness craved by Henry moving in disguise among his troops belongs to Branagh's upbringing (the family moved from Belfast to Reading when he was nine) and has immunised him against both guilt and shyness in pursuing his objectives. The autobiography, which is not remotely tiresome or precocious (compare and contrast with what Beverley Nichols wrote when he was just 23!), was written partly to subsidise an office move; Renaissance was, until last year, run out of a cramped flat in Camberwell.

Branagh founded the company with his associate David Parfitt and was joined recently by a stagestruck stockbroker, Stephen Evans (who raised 4.5 m Pounds (pds) to make the film after David Puttnam dropped out). It is part of the new mood of Actors Lib that has swept through the British theatre and undermined the hegemony of the two big companies, particularly the RSC. "The system at the RSC is too unwieldy and I was in a state of impotent rage there. I went expecting a family enterprise where you could always knock on someone's door. Well, you could knock on a door, but there was not usually anyone on the other side of it."

Does that mean the success of Renaissance in Mrs Thatcher's Britain proves her point about not needing to subsidise the arts? "Not at all. I believe passionately that the arts should be subsidised. But I had no choice in doing without subsidy when I started Renaissance, so I used by income from films and television. I aim to be in a position soon where I can make more demands of the Arts Council and the British Screen Finance people, and expect more support. I have paid a large price, I think, as a creative artist, in going through all the hassle of the last couple of years. It's all to do with the very low regard in which actors and creative people are held in Britain."

Renowned as a mimic and giggler, Branagh seems to retain the admiration of his peers (and elders) while palpably carving out a great career for himself. Although a gypsy at heart, he manages to project an enviable mixture of affability and ruthlessness.

"Actors are beggars, always will be. Our home is really where we work. Belfast is important to me, and I am always moved when I go there. I remain steeped in a working class Protestant Belfast philosophy. But it's my job to change my voice, become other people, so I have what Olivia Manning describes as the Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere. I think that is why I am so interested in the history of the theatre and in the sense of tradition that exists among actors."

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