Renaissance Man

Plays & Players, July 1987
by Alex Renton
**thanks to Virginia Leong

Renaissance is a new company with a mission. Kenneth Branagh, its young founder, talks to Alex Renton about what he hopes it will achieve

Kenneth Branagh took a break from writing replies to the "dozens and dozens" of CVs he is receiving daily from work-hungry actors, and we discussed what the Renaissance Theatre Company might mean to the world in a year's time. Branagh, co-founder of this new actor's company admitted: "For me, Renaissance will be about actors being able to break rules."

Branagh perhaps breaks a rule by launching Renaissance this month (Jul 9) with his own play, Public Enemy, at the Lyric Hammersmith. But the arrogance, or perhaps the dangers of putting himself on the prow as Renaissance takes to the water were not an issue in mid-May, when we spoke. Then the company was merely one typewriter in a small room in his Camberwell flat (a virgin year-planner adorning one wall), some promises from some of Britain's leading thinking actors, and a press release replete with glorious good intentions.

At a starry West End launch the bill of fare for Renaissance's first year read a little rich, rather like a glossy hotel menu promising "International Cuisine". Public Enemy -- the title has little to do with Cagney, but the play seems likely to examine the Belfast of Branagh's upbringing -- is the entrée. It will be followed by a programme of new work, "Renaissance Nights", organised by Branagh's co-director, David Parfitt. Then there's a two-hour solo gallop through Napoleon Bonaparte's life. John Sessions writing and performing. Main course will be Branagh's production of Twelfth Night, and the savoury three Shakespeare's directed by Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan and Derek Jacobi. Branagh will achieve his ambition of playing Hamlet (a job he says he would return to Stratford for) under Jacobi's eye. This last was not announced at the launch: that, Branagh admitted, would be overkill.

It is a disparate programme, and one that can't help but inspire some cynicism. But the variegated nature of Renaissance has its advantages -- the company won't live or die on the strength of one production or one ethic; ultimately, says David Parfitt, "I'd like people to see Renaissance shows because they know that whatever they get, they'll get it well-done". Renaissance stands, we were told, for "the rebirth of the actor" -- perhaps it also has the qualities of Renaissance Man; it will be the polymath of companies.

As diverse as Renaissance's programme is Branagh's career. Now 26, he hit the headlines at 23 in Adrian Noble's RSC Henry V, an earthy interpretation of the warrior King that had critics generally in agreement in calling it the most exciting Stratford début for years. An "embryonic matinée idol", said one and such phrases encouraged comparison with the early Laurence Olivier. Branagh's move into the role of actor-manager ("something of a dirty word"), has reawakened ideas of a link with Olivier, but he agrees that they are only significant for the discrepancies. Olivier was a matinée idol long before he was a classical actor, and indeed after he had failed to make a mark on Hollywood. Branagh is an actor-manager far earlier than Olivier was, and before he has made a lasting mark as a classical actor. One Hollywood film, the recently-released comedy thriller High Season; the title role in Graham Reid's Billy Belfast television series; a BBC Ghosts with his future employee Judi Dench and Romeo in his own Romeo and Juliet at the Lyric Hammersmith last year: this is the sum of his significant experience. He has just completed nine months work on the BBC's Olivia Manning adaptation, The Fortunes of War; much of the proceeds of that project are now funding Renaissance. But has he not made the leap into the business of showbiz ten years too early?

"After Fortunes of War it seemed like the right time to take a risk, really. If I think in purely selfish, careerist terms, this could be a year when I take some sort of step back, or sideways. But I don't think in those terms. I do get frightened. I wake up sweating about what's the right thing to do. There's lot of analysis of young actors -- I'm down as serious young classical actor at the moment, so I'm supposed to go in a particular way. But that kind of thing shouldn't affect you."

"I don't have a body of work and I see this next year as a chance to get that experience. It will provide me and, I hope, lots of other people, with a chance to do that in a way that isn't currently available; under our own terms, in the right environment. I do want to go through the classical roles." Couldn't you do that at the RSC or the NT?

It's a popular question. "The simple fact is that I left the RSC when my contract ended, and they haven't asked me to go back. The National Theatre haven't asked me to go there. Terry Hands asked me at the beginning of 1985 when I would like to go back, and I said 'Well, actually, Terry, I want to form a company.' We talked about doing it within the framework of the RSC, but it didn't come to pass. Anyway 'how can we give a company to a 25 year old who's done one season at Stratford?'. I quite understand that."

At the Lyric Hammersmith last year, Branagh directed himself in a sparse, text-oriented Romeo and Juliet that got considerable acclaim, and Renaissance on the road. "We'd demystified the administrative side, and a clutch of projects came up that we felt we wanted to do. At the Lyric I learnt what a director and designer can do when they are working well together; an understanding I never had when I was just an actor. I learnt a very great deal. I realised what is possible. And writing, directing, administrating are natural extensions of the core of my ambition, acting." Actors, he says, are valuable participants in these processes -- "though that doesn't mean directing by committee."

Branagh is in writer and actor mode for the first production. Public Enemy will be directed by a friend of his RADA days, Malcolm McKay, who directed him there in the final term Hamlet. McKay is author of TV plays and Airbase, a story of life inside the British USAF self-directed at the Arts in 1985. Geoff Rose is the designer, a role Branagh hopes he will take again for Renaissance. No blandishments can persuade Branagh to give any clues about the nature of this, his second publicly produced play. Nerves, and a desire to retain the surprise element, mean that he will release no press billing of the play -- it will open unannounced at the Lyric. "That might make your evening in the theatre more interesting," he smiles. He is concerned about the "Who does he think he is" factor, and promoting his own play on top of everything else, will, he reckons, exacerbate that. "It's just a new play -- If it flops I'll be a wreck, but I'll get up. Rehearsals for The Life of Napoleon start four days after we open."

He takes the lead in Public Enemy, but won't appear in Twelfth Night, which boasts a Malvolio from Richard Briers. This treat is due for the Riverside in November, in a production "in which the design will be important", a surprise, perhaps, for those who have numbered Branagh, with Kick Theatre's Deborah Warner, among a new breed of Shakespearean directors for whom design is not a first priority.

If Renaissance needs an identity, it may find it in February next year when Judi Dench opens the season of name actor-directed Shakespeares in Birmingham Rep's studio with Much Ado. This, the sexiest publicity proposition on the ticket, came about, Branagh says, "because I knew that generation of actors to be dying to direct. For an actor it will be very exciting for the sense of direct contact with their doing those roles. The principle aim is not to turn them into instant directors, in the conventional sense, but to share their experience in controlled conditions." The actors chose the plays themselves: Geraldine McEwan takes on As You Like It "partly because Rosalind is one of the few parts she has never done". One company will be used for all three plays, and they will tour after July. Actors in the company will be given an opportunity to put on their own work during the season, and Branagh hopes to have some funds for "at least token" commissioning.

The financing of Renaissance is traditional; it is no actors' co-op. If things don't work out Branagh and Parfitt face the annihilation of their bank accounts. They are sanguine about this prospect: "you don't do what we're doing to make money." Angels and co-production deals have got this year's work on the road, and they hope for some sponsorship for the Birmingham Rep season. Although Branagh initially stated that the company wouldn't approach the Arts Council "until we've proved ourselves", the Arts Council has now, historically, approached them for discussions about funding the Birmingham season's tour. But if Renaissance survives this year, they hope it will survive many more; David Parfitt is considering going into direction and administration permanently.

Branagh can take the flop, if it happens. "After a year, I'll only be 27. I might go to Australia for three years, come back and be an actor again. I'd be much more popular because I'd have all this 'Oh, the young God of theatre, got too big for his boots, had a terrible fall, but makes his comeback!' A Rocky story -- great publicity."

Parfitt and Branagh laugh, and you get a sense of boys who have gleefully built their own toybox. But there's a whiff of young crusaders, too; of Prince Hals. They are wary of this: "There isn't really a crusading element in what we do except in relation to ourselves; we're determined to find out whether the sort of work we do and the way we do it is the right way; or just a little vacuum of ego". But there's dragon slaying in mind. Branagh says, "I laughed when I thought 'it's a bit like a Thirties war picture' -- we have a very British idea about how this should be done. It's not just what we achieve, but the way in which we do it. Nothing twee or precious, but things need to be done justly, and honourably."

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