The Wellesian Success of Citizen Branagh

Los Angeles Times, November 9 1989
by Charles Champlin, Times Arts Editor

To film Shakespeare's "Henry V" when Laurence Olivier's 1944 version is revered as a classic seemed an audacity bordering on madness. But the blazing reviews that Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" is receiving here and abroad suggest that Branagh has not only brought it off, but in so doing has extended his reputation as a fearless wonder child whose equal the English theater has not seen.

Branagh (rhymes with manna, as from heaven) has inevitably been compared with Olivier himself, to Branagh's impatience.

"It's essentially meaningless," Branagh said at lunch in Los Angeles during a quick visit for the local opening of his film.

"We are nothing like each other. He is the greatest actor of the century. The comparison," Branagh adds with a quick grin, "is annoying to people who don't like my work, and also to those who expect the Second Coming."

Branagh might more accurately be compared with Orson Welles, although his flamboyance does not extend to capes and cigars and is concentrated on the stage and before the cameras. But, still only 28, Branagh reveals much of Welles' drive as what might be called an artistic entrepreneur.

On about $40,000 (depending on which exchange rate you quote) raised in $800 dollops, Branagh launched his Renaissance Theatre Company 2 1/2 years ago and lost the whole investment on his first production, a contemporary play he had written called "Public Enemy."

"A swift, horrible death at the hands of the critics," he says. But the public who saw it liked it, he adds, and one of the customers, Stephen Evans, executive producer of "Henry V," helped raise money for a second production, a hugely successful "Twelfth Night." He also used an astonishing $75,000 advance for his autobiography. The idea of a 27-year-old having that much to remember occasioned some snide comments at home; then again Branagh has covered a lot of ground.

By now Renaissance has done nine productions, including the film and two plays for television. Two more, "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which will play here in January as Branagh and the Mark Taper Forum's Gordon Davidson announced Tuesday, are in rehearsal.

Branagh was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to a working-class family, his father a carpenter who moved the family to Reading, England, when Branagh was 9.

"In Reading, there were three career choices for a school leaver: British Rail, insurance or the army." On the basis of a school play, an encouraging teacher and several trips to London to see professional theater, Branagh decided to become an actor.

"I could see my father's face collapse when I said it. For him all actors had to be shrieking darlings."

Branagh applied for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which each year has about 23 places for 1,600 applicants. He brashly did "Hamlet" soliloquys. Hugh Crutwell, who ran the academy, said immediately afterward: "Everybody else wants to give you a place. But I found the work 10-a-penny, 10-a-penny. I think you can do better. I'd like you to do some more."

"He said I was performing, not acting," Branagh says now. "There was so much I didn't know, about the difference between energy and vitality, all of it." He was accepted and graduated in 1981 with the Bancroft Prize as best actor. Crutwell has since become an unofficial, critical but supportive adviser on all of Branagh's projects.

Right from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art he made a considerable stir in the West End as a Marxist schoolboy in "Another Country." He was seen on American television co-starring with Emma Thompson in "Fortunes of War," based on the Olivia Manning trilogy. He acted with Jacqueline Bisset in the film "High Season." He and Thompson, who plays Catherine in "Henry V" and will play the Fool in "Lear," were married in August.

"At home in Reading," Branagh says, "there wasn't a book to be found, so I went to the pictures all the time. I found I was studying the credits very carefully. Who were these Westmores, who did all the makeup? I started to notice the long tracking shots and say, 'Hey, that's all one piece.' "

If he hadn't been an actor, he would likely have become a journalist. "I wrote to a paper and complained that they didn't have a young person reviewing children's books. They let me do the reviews. No money but I got to keep the books, and I was all set to join the paper when I turned 16."

But the decision to act came as what Branagh now calls "the gift of certainty." He began to read every book he could find on theater history and theater personalities, watched careers develop, noting with pleasure the rise of Anthony Hopkins, for example.

Along with the gift of certainty came a corollary conviction to one day have a company of strolling players to bring theater to a wide audience. "I was fascinated by what you can call the pre-director era of British theater, when Gielgud, say, would do a season with a wonderful company, Peggy Ashcroft and several others, and they could rehearse for 10 weeks.

"I had the sense of being connected to some kind of tradition, and I wanted to be part of it. I could identify with the spirit of the actor, especially, I suppose, being Irish-English and having moved from the working class to the middle-class suburbs."

He remembers his parents seeing one of his early Shakespeare performances and one of them saying, "Oh, it's good, but we wouldn't really know, would we?" It was his thought that if they liked it and followed it, that was enough to know.

It is a populist dream of his, which continues. In Los Angeles he had several conversations with studio executives and producers attracted by the success of "Henry V." Branagh, who has helped keep the Renaissance Theatre Company afloat with his earnings as an actor, would like to work here, not least to assure the company's popular outreach.

He undertook "Henry V" with a clear vision, to create "an adventure with some subversive notions." Olivier, making a film of thrilling patriotic fervor on the eve of D-day, could not attend to the dark, antiwar text or subtext Branagh found in Shakespeare.

The influence of those pictures Branagh saw in Reading seems clear, the lessons of Ford, Hawks and Welles. "I saw 'Citizen Kane' several times," Branagh says. "And I had to keep remembering something Welles said someplace: 'Be bold, be bold.' He also said you had to know everything about film making, or nothing. You can't play safe. There's no safe to play."

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