Kenneth Branagh: Can He Succeed Where Olivier Failed?
He has always been compared to Laurence Olivier. But, as his star-laden season opens at the Garrick, can he now outdo him as actor-manager – and save the West End?

The Guardian, 8 October 2015
By Michael Billington
Thanks, Jane

One thing I know about Kenneth Branagh: he has a strong sense of the past. I was astonished on first meeting him, just out of drama school, at how well informed he was about theatre history. “It’s because,” he told me, “I used to sit in my bedroom, as a boy in Reading, devouring old copies of Plays and Players.”

So Branagh will know as well as anyone that, by setting up his own company to present a five-play West End season at the Garrick starting with The Winter’s Tale, he is inviting comparison with the great actor-managers of the past.

The dominance of the actor-manager reached its peak in the Victorian era when all the major London theatres were run by famous actors. George Bernard Shaw, however, constantly ridiculed the idea. Reviewing Henry Irving at the Lyceum in a third-rate play about King Arthur, he wrote: “I sometimes wonder where Mr Irving will go to when he dies – whether he will dare to walk where any day he may meet Shakespeare whom he has mutilated, Goethe whom he has travestied and the nameless creator of the hero-king out of whose mouth he has uttered jobbing verses.”

Eventually the actor-manager died out, replaced by itinerant figures such as the fitfully great Donald Wolfit, who toured Shakespeare productions in which every expense was visibly spared. But, if there is one individual who has influenced Branagh, it is clearly Laurence Olivier. Branagh said recently that Olivier has always been “an inspiration” rather than someone with whom he’d compare himself. But comparisons are inevitable. Branagh’s film of Henry V, with its emphasis on the mud-caked chaos of Agincourt stands as a corrective to the patriotic glamour of Olivier’s wartime film. And, where Olivier’s movie Hamlet cut the text ruthlessly, Branagh gave us a full four-and-a-half hour version even finding room for a brief glimpse of Ken Dodd as Yorick.

When Branagh played Macbeth at St Peter’s church, Manchester in 2013, I was struck by the way he would pounce on a single word exactly as Olivier used to do: “To be thus is NOTHING but to be safely thus,” he cried with a fierce tenor bark. He even played Olivier in the film 'My Night With Marilyn' where he caught precisely the great man’s theatrical camp and gimlet-eyed stare. Branagh will also challenge Olivier on his own ground when, a year from now, he takes on the role of Archie Rice in 'The Entertainer': I see no reason why he shouldn’t succeed since, as with Olivier, there is a good deal of the pub comic lurking inside Branagh.

There is, however, a vast difference between Olivier and Branagh as actor-manager. When Laurence Olivier Productions was set up in 1947, it was partly Olivier’s reaction to his brutal sacking by the Old Vic board while leading the company on a triumphant tour of Australia, partly infrastructure for his partnership with Vivien Leigh, even though their marriage was falling apart. Olivier even thought it would be fun, as he said, “to own his own shop”.

But although LOP had a few big hits – notably 'A Streetcar Named Desire' with Leigh – and even took a four-year lease on the St James’s theatre, it never really prospered. Olivier, for all his genius as an actor, had a strange capacity for picking duds. A transplanted Anouilh play, 'Fading Mansions', and Tyrone Guthrie’s 'Top of the Ladder' both closed in a couple of weeks and a Gian Carlo Menotti opera, 'The Consul', lost a small fortune. Olivier only really came into his own as an actor-manager when he ran the National Theatre; but there he had a hand-picked team of co-directors and a literary manager in Kenneth Tynan.

The case with Branagh is totally different. Even at the start of his career, he successfully created and co-ran the Renaissance Theatre Company. He is shrewd enough to know the public craves stars: not only will he be in four of the five plays but fellow actors include Judi Dench and Rob Brydon. But the key point is that Branagh has realised that the West End has to radically change in order to survive. If there is a model for his new season, it has nothing to do with the actor-managers of the past but with the work of Michael Grandage in taking over first Wyndham’s and then the Noel Coward to present star-laden packages of old and new plays.

The truth is obvious: that the only real hope for the survival of high-quality drama in the West End lies in seasons spearheaded by a big-name director or actor. There is an even greater truth behind that: that commercial theatre has to be run on the same lines as the subsidised sector. That means cheap tickets and the work being transmitted live to a mass audience: Branagh has already announced that 'The Winter’s Tale', 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'The Entertainer' will be screened to 1,300 cinemas in Britain and around the world.

Everywhere you look, the commercial sector has woken up to the fact that you have to have a coherent policy and distinct identity. Grandage has done it in the West End. So, too, Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios and first Kevin Spacey and now Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic. What we are seeing is not the resurrection of the dusty old actor-manager with the spotlight on a single ego. It is something of far greater significance: the realisation that serious commercial theatre will die unless it can offer continuity, affordability and the heady aroma of a special event.

The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick, London, begins with 'The Winter’s Tale' on 17 October. Kenneth Branagh and members of the company talk to Mark Lawson in a Guardian Live event on Thursday 8 October at Milton Court, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London.

Back to the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company page | Back to Articles Listing | Back to the Compendium