Kenneth Branagh's Bard Belies Bombast

Kansas City Star, June 13 1993
by Robert Butler

You always have to have a creative reason for what you do," actor director Kenneth Branagh said. "If you're calculating, if you try to put together a package which superficially would seem to attract more people, you get found out. The gods won't let you get away with that. "

Branagh, 32, the "boy wonder" who shot to international fame when he starred in and directed the 1989 film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V," had just been asked why, with hundreds of classically trained British actors ready to do service, he had given major roles in his "Much Ado About Nothing" to American movies stars such as Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and Michael Keaton.

It wasn't because he was worried that big names were necessary to ensure the success of the Bard at the box office, Branagh said in a recent telephone interview.

The main reason he wanted Americans on board for the sunny comedy of love (it opens Friday at the Tivoli at Manor Square) was that he didn't want to fall into the same old stuffy Shakespearean traps.

"I wanted people asking different questions from different points of view, people who could give us a different cultural approach to the material," Branagh said. "I didn't want this movie to appeal just to a small club of British intellectuals. "

In conversation, Branagh made it clear he wasn't a member of that club. Despite having tackled many of the great Shakespearean roles, Branagh offscreen is salty, ribald and blessed with an impish sense of humor. He grew up in the era of Clint Eastwood and the Sex Pistols and admits he's a product of pop culture, a fact reflected in his films "Dead Again," a Hitchcockian thriller, and "Peter's Friends," described as a British "Big Chill. " That also explains why with "Much Ado" he tried to make a popular film that just happened to be based on the Bard.

You might think that the British public would hold Shakespeare in high esteem - or at least appreciate him more than your average American. But, says Branagh, it isn't so.

"It's just as much of a problem for us back home as it is for you Americans," he said. "Generation after generation of English kids are forced at age 14 to eat this Shakespeare stuff. They're told he's good, he's brilliant and he's yours. Only the kids don't make any connection with why he's so good. So there's a resentment, an built-in resistance to the guy.

"It's been a personal mission of mine to get rid of the stiffness, the reverential quality infecting Shakespearean performances. You know: Actors doing Shakespeare act oddly. They don't behave like human beings. The only reason I can see to do Shakespeare on film is if these characters live and seem real, dealing with situations all of us can identify with.

"With `Much Ado' the situation is love. Anybody who has been in love can identify with it. But we mustn't put some strange thing on Shakespeare - you know, having people speaking in these odd voices (here Branagh affected a rumbling, stentorian sound). The classic reports of actual performances in Shakespeare's day comment on their immediacy, not on that bombastic quality we associate with Shakespearean theater at its worst. "

"Much Ado" benefits from having been written in a way that minimizes the temptation for phony delivery of lines, Branagh said.

"It's so naturalistic that it really disarms people. When I was doing this play in the theater people would come up and tell me they couldn't believe it was 400 years old because it was so direct. "

Certainly Branagh's most controversial bit of casting is having comic actor Micheal Keaton portray Dogberry, the officious constable who is just stupid and pompous enough to be dangerous. Employing a gravelly "Ahoy, Matey! " pirate voice and pretending to ride an invisible horse, Keaton's Dogberry seems guaranteed to blow the minds of purists.

"I've seen that part played so badly and so slowly on stage that it's put the play on the floor," Branagh said. "I wanted a brave, bold performance that would provide a surreal quality. And the vividness with which it's performed is exactly in the same spirit as the performances of Will Kemp, one of Shakespeare's great clowns, who was chucked out of the company for ad-libbing too much. I just know Kemp would have given a very physical performance.

"I figured Dogberry would be the hardest character to do for a modern audience. He's one of those dangerous, thick people who believe they are intelligent and responsible but are actually a few sandwiches short of a picnic. For example, the whole idea of having him ride in on an imaginary horse...We shot it several ways, including just having him walk and run, but this way was bigger and bolder.

"The truth - and I'll probably be struck by lightning for saying so - is that a lot of those Dogberry gags just aren't funny as written. The fun is in the size of the man's ego and his assurances about his own competence as a constable.

"I believe the closest thing to genuine Shakespeare in this century were the vaudevillians, who had to deal with rowdy audiences, a real cross section of people. Michael gave us a very dangerous and slightly bawdy performance, and I think it was absolutely right. "

Also absolutely right are the performances of Branagh and his real-life wife, Oscar-winner Emma Thompson, as Shakespeare's great bickering lovers, Benedict and Beatrice.

Because he had played Benedict several times on stage, Branagh at first was concerned that Thompson, who never had portrayed Beatrice, might have trouble catching up with him.

"I already had a sense of where people were likely to laugh because of my stage experiences," he noted. "It's hard to time a comedy on film, because there's no audience there to respond. "

But if anything, he said, he had to race to keep up with his wife.

"She's a very fine actress and a great pro, and what was really useful for me as a director was that she's very good with the cast and crew. She leads by example. She takes an interest in the whole thing, the entire production, and in setting this atmosphere by her own example, it takes such a weight off my shoulders.

"She served as my proxy in dealing with the other actors. She wasn't doing it to be nice to her husband. It's just Em. You talk to James Ivory (director of `Howards End,' for which Thompson won her Academy Award) about that. She's a natural leader.

"The odd thing is that in the past we've never thought of ourselves as a team. Em did `Howards End' without me. And since then she's done a couple of pictures on her own. I'm about to make `Frankenstein' without her.

"But we'll work together on certain projects because it's just so right. To date there have been no disadvantages to the arrangement. "

The other big help Branagh the director received while making "Much Ado" came from the shooting location - a Renaissance estate in Tuscany, Italy, where the historic Mona Lisa of Leonardo fame is said to have resided.

"Of course there are probably 15 other villa owners in the neighborhood who would love to spin the same story," Branagh said, laughing.

In any case, he said, the land - "the lushness, the calm, the sunsets, the colors, the quality of the light" - all contributed to a magical and romantic experience both on and off camera.

"The setting contributed enormously to the mood of the actors, to the specialness of it. I know everybody who showed up for this shoot thought, `What an amazing gig this is. I'm going to enjoy this.'

"And of course they did. "

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