Shaking Up Shakespeare

Houston Chronicle, December 10 1989
by Jeff Millar

Young British actor/director Kenneth Branagh produces a movie `Henry V' for the masses

He did "what?"

Made his own version of one of the most revered films ever made in England, Laurence Olivier's wartime patriotic pick-me-up "Henry V." As Sir Laurence was dying.

How dare he!

Like Olivier, he made his debut as a director with this "Henry. "And, like Olivier, he acted Henry, too.

"The cheek!"

Rewrote it a bit. Interpolated scenes from "Falstaff."

"The audacity!"

Like Olivier at the National Theater, he's an actor-manager, too, on the old English theatrical model. Has his own company, the Renaissance Theater. Did "Hamlet." Gets people like Derek Jacobi to direct him.

"The effrontery!"

Says things in interviews like, "If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing movies."


Says things like, "Shakespeare wrote for the "Lethal Weapon II" crowd."


He's 28 years old.


That's "Aaaugh" as in Kenneth Branagh, who is out to bring Shakespeare to the mall rats of America. If it means a soupcon of pandering, like hairstyles on the guys that wouldn't look strange in a Levi's 501s commercial, well, OK. In Branagh 's half hour in the Chronicle building, neither he nor I used the word "gnarly" in reference to "Henry V." But you have the idea that if the word did appear, Branagh wouldn't kick it out the window.

Houston was the last, slightly bleary stop of a three-week, 15-city publicity tour Branagh was doing on behalf of his "Henry-Five" (if you want to be English and theatrical, that's how you refer to it). This "H-5" began life in the Renaissance Theater, which Branagh founded. The film version is vest-pocket-sized; his budget, some of which came from the BBC-TV, was $8 million. Compared to Olivier's production, the happy, happy few at Branagh 's battle of Agincourt are even fewer.

Although he was brought up on movies as a child in Belfast, Branagh said he became a movie director not because he wanted to become a movie director but because of the Cause: bringing Shakespeare "in a popular medium to a modern audience which has suffered through its being badly done for generations."

"There is so much smugness in the way Shakespeare is acted on the stage," said Branagh , who then gave a particularly snippy imitation of the default deluxe English-Shakespearean-actor reading. "This medium can do something about that."

In addition to the men's hairstyles ("more the essence of the time, not as slicked-back and sculptured and foppish as is traditional") Branagh has taken steps that he characterizes alternately as liberties and enhancements. Branagh believes that the Shakespearean viscera has been high-cultured to the point that it has become a "miserable experience for all the teen-agers of the United States and England - it's really rammed down our throats back home - who are forced to sit through it."

"When I show this film to American high-school kids," he said, "I can hear an almost audible sigh of relief: `We're not in "church.""' Cinemas in England say that the film's reaching quite a down-market audience, including woman. I tried not to make this `boysy."'

He's searched for ways to speak the dialogue that is "more realistic sounding but still holds on to the elements of poetry that make the hair stand up." And rather than regard "H-5" as a "patriotic effort," like you-know-who's 45 years ago, Branagh is convinced that Shakespeare asks audiences to think about this: "If you accept the expediencies of war, is this the best way to do it?"

Branagh is selling his "H-5" as "an action-adventure story about a young man's emotional journey toward maturity." Henry was almost exactly Branagh 's age at Agincourt (you-know-who was 38 for his "H-5)." "Of all Shakespeare's kings, he's the one we admire as much for his flaws as his (good) qualities. He was prone to passionate extremes."

As much as any Shakespeare, "H-5" has "points of identification to very modern obsessions" such as the one we have with the private lives of public leaders, Branagh said. "We've grown pretty cynical about our leaders and what we expect from how we are to be led. Were the British tabloid press in business back in the 15th century, they'd be searching for Henry's laundry."

Branagh puts a contemporary frame around his "H-5." The first line - "Oh, for a muse of fire!" - is spoken on a movie sound stage, behind the period sets, by Jacobi, in modern dress. Jacobi functions as Shakespeare's narrator, showing up in the same modern dress in several places, including the battlefields.

"I needed to disarm the audience," Branagh said, "and I needed a style in cinematic terms that met theatrical terms. Derek is the medieval news reporter, Brechtian if you will, who reminds the audience who gets romantically involved with Henry that he might be a little paranoid."

Branagh is not enough a popularizer to support the conversion of Shakespeare into contemporary vernacular. He can find passages in Shakespeare that "express the way I feel better than any contemporary phrase."

"`This revolt is like another fall of man' is simply a more powerful way to say `You make me mad,"' he said. But as for non-traditional stagings, such as the Alley's recent setting of "Measure for Measure" in the 1930s, he said, "full stop." That translates from the British as "go for it."

Branagh will bring his Renaissance Theater productions of "King Lear" (he's Edgar) and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (he's the Prince) to Los Angeles in January. He's doing workshops with American actors to get them over their fear of Shakespeare.

And there's one emulation of Olivier that this self-described renegade is ready to embrace. If Hollywood will have him, he's going Hollywood. Olivier made dozens of films "and still stayed `proper,"' he said. "People who admire me say that I should stay `pure.' Why shouldn't I go Hollywood? What's this `pure, proper' career I'm supposed to have?

"I'd like to play an American," he said. "I think I'd like to play a baseball player."

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