Star-Spangled Branagh

Plays & Players, May 1992
by Graham Hassell
**thanks to Virginia Leong

He's playing Coriolanus this month at Chichester, Hamlet for the RSC at the end of the year, and he's got a new film out soon. Graham Hassell asks, is nothing beyond our Ken?

Now that the lid seems finally nailed shut on the coffin of the 1980s, reassessment of that aggressive, preening, get-rich decade will become a veritable boom industry in itself. Politically and economically, when it comes to dividing the achievements from the catastrophes, issues will no doubt remain contentious for some time. But when it comes to writing a new chapter of theatre history there will be a clearly discernible landmark towering above the evolving topography. In amongst the carping about Arts Council grants falling behind inflation and the reluctant moves to find subsidy, the pleas from the critics for more new writing being drowned by the sound of West End musicals, and the growing contribution of women directors and authors on the scene, is the single most impressive development - the emergence of Renaissance.

At still only 31 Branagh is as thrustingly symbolic of the period as Canary Wharf - the difference being that Ken is fully occupied. He made his West End debut in Julian Mitchell's Another Country exactly ten years ago playing alongside Rupert Everett. Tellingly, Everett had the starring role as a handsome public school boy whose latent homosexuality sets him on the road to becoming a Guy Burgess-like spy; Branagh had the character role as Judd, the school's lone Marxist, railing against the system, society and the state, and trying to lose himself in Das Kapital.

Branagh never really looked back. Three years on he had reached a personal goal by working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, not as a spear carrier but as the King in Henry V. Two years later he'd outgrown the company and formed his own, Renaissance. He supported its early existence by writing Beginning, a short, 240-page biography, for which Chatto and Windus gave him a substantial advance. Successful productions of Shakespeare in the West End (not an easy task), including Branagh giving his first professional Hamlet, prompted greater confidence and eventually led to the 1989 Renaissance film on Henry V. Branagh adapted, directed and played the title role. It won wide acclaim, a clutch of international awards and two Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director. Since then his diary has been characterised by never having a blank day in it.

Branagh, however, is keen to point out that the leaps and bounds of his successes in the 1980s were coincidental to, rather than aided by, the prevailing political climate. In one instance he had to resist the embrace of its tentacled influence. Before its premiere the RSC Henry V had already been labelled a "post-Falklands" version, leaving it to Branagh and director Adrian Noble to lean concertedly away from the play's crude jingoism and "superficial militaristic pageantry" or else be seen as condoning the South Atlantic war. A few years later, with Renaissance up and running, the company's very modus operandi seemed to some to pay lip service to government tenets, daring to rise, thrive and survive without subsidy.

"We had to resist all along the notion that we personified some kind of Thatcherite, self-help momentum," Branagh explains. "That was pure bunkum. What we'd done was much more rooted in a theatrical tradition that goes back hundreds of years - namely, to put on shows and pay our way. The profit motive, I can honestly say, has been entirely absent from our endeavours. The truth is that I had a level of commercial reclame which allowed me to subsidise the company, while the actors themselves subsidised it by working for less than commercial rates. Our sin is only to have existed outside the world of government grants, and that is somehow, in some quarters, seen as a bad thing. Yet I have nothing but support for the notion of subsidy, and wish it to continue, and for there to be more of it. And indeed that we could have some of it!" Yet despite Branagh's high profile (Hollywood films are now within his ambit since he starred in and directed Paramount Pictures' Dead Again last year), after five years of profitable work funding is still the constant problem for Renaissance.

"It's just not as easy as saying 'here are some people who've been on TV and are a bit famous, I'm sure you'll want to give us something for nothing'. And the recession has made it worse. Although we were well sponsored for our world tour of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream, it was very difficult to get money for last year's tour of Uncle Vanya, and it continues to be difficult. There are no safe bets. Even the national companies are finding it difficult. Personally though, I'd rather put my own money into a production than have to go to 18 meetings that mean missing six rehearsals. Selling yourself can be a self-defeating exercise. Saying time-consuming thank-yous to sponsors eventually goes against the art you are trying to create."

Branagh thinks one way to survive is by remaining small. The company core is only eight people in two offices. They do without a theatrical base, take on one project at a time and draw from a pool of freelance actors and technicians, 50% of whom have been used before, giving the company a familial cohesiveness. Branagh himself has nothing more to do with the administration, but allows that his interest in the educative process of the productions lead him to write, act, produce and direct in turn. As for a company mainfesto, there never was one. "We were, are, no more than a group of like-minded people who like to do plays and take them on tour...and in the plays, the choice of plays, and in the running of the company will be expressed the politics and views we hold. We did not set out to be alternative to anything, merely to create an atmosphere in which a company could exist and from which high-quality work could emerge, especially Shakespeare, who was not well served because of the economics of large-cast tours by the national companies." Branagh, at this point slipping into a kind of legalese learned from the lawyers he must increasingly have to deal with, cites the example of the RSC touring Richard III, which British Telecom decided not to sponsor in favour of another company's commercial Agatha Christie mystery. "Here then is the very gap we hope to fill."

Branagh's personal career, coupled with his Renaissance promulgation, led some critics to deride his seeming ubiquity. The man was everywhere - on TV, in the West End, on the bookshelves, at the cinema and then out on video. He was his own PR industry. Being multi-talented was OK, but talking about it wasn't. The film of Henry V brought the inevitable comparisons with Olivier, which gave its detractors even more fodder. (Branagh didn't mind a bit - "everyone playing the classics is, of course, compared to other interpreters. Olivier and Gielgud themselves were compared by people who remembered Irving. It's a part of general criticism, which I appreciate, even enjoy.") Could no one rid us of this omnipresent thespian? It became impossible to tell the man from the hype. Then, two-and-a-half years ago, he married Emma Thompson, a high-profile comedienne just making media waves, and the whole business cranked up another notch. Branagh's attitude to fame and infamy has throughout remained laudably philosophical.

"In retrospect I can see there was a honeymoon period. After that there were equal and opposite reactions. Some people love you, others don't love you. But people's reactions are so subjective. Not everyone is going to like what you do. So you can get bashed about a bit as you go in and out of fashion. Yes, undoubtedly, sometimes people take very personal and perhaps unfair attitudes towards one, but I've always had my champions and supporters. There's a price to pay for every level of achievement. I have no complaints."

It's the paparazzi coverage which feeds most people's impression of Kenneth Branagh. But what this impression fails to recognise is how hard-working he is, how professional and on top of his subject. He certainly didn't get where he is today by chance. If Henry V made him, his investment in the part was proportionate. He'd studied it at RADA, then had a "luxurious" ten-week rehearsal period with it before the 1984/5 Stratford and Barbican runs, reading every biography of the King along the way. He even topped off his preparation with a fireside chat with the Prince of Wales - adding, as it were, a little touch of Charlie in the right places. That the later film worked so well was clearly no accident - Branagh knew Henry backwards. A further demonstration of his professionalism can be seen in his adoption of the de Niro school of acting, which had him lose two stone to play DH Lawrence on TV in 1986. Would he ever do that again?

"For Scorsese, yes, I would. It's nice to put yourself in the hands of someone you really trust. And if directors meet that kind of commitment with their own fidelity to the work then it's great, and not just so much wankery."

Beyond Peter's Friends, a new comedy drama for Renaissance Films, directed by and starring Branagh with support from Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Mrs Branagh too, now at the end of the editing stage, the latest project is Coriolanus for the Chichester Festival season playing through May and June, directed by Tim Supple. The production marks Renaissance's fifth anniversary. Luckily this is not a weighty part in the Raging Bull sense, just heavy on the line-learning. A scar here, a little blood there, should do the trick. For the rest the interpretation will be all Mr. Branagh's...well, with a little help from his Renaissance friends, that is.

Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium