Entering Olivier's Area

San Diego Union-Tribune, November 9 1989
author unknown

Branagh says he had to enter Olivier's area with Henry V'

Kenneth Branagh is the hottest topic of conversation in the haughty halls of British theater right now -- not only because he runs one of the country's best new theater troupes, the Renaissance Theatre Company, but because he seems to be moving into Laurence Olivier's territory.

With the century's predominant actor scarcely in his grave, Branagh is peddling a new film of Shakespeare's "Henry V," adapted, directed and acted by himself.

Olivier adapted, directed and acted his own film version of the play during the darkest days of World War II. Then, and now, it is generally considered one of the best films of all time, a glorious triumph of art over adversity that also manages to be fabulous entertainment.

Couldn't Branagh, who was only 27 when he undertook "Henry V," have found another play to film?

"I've had an ongoing preoccupation with the role since I was in drama school," he said here this week, "though I always thought the idea of really doing it was from Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. But people began taking me seriously so, finally, I had to do it."

People took Branagh seriously, perhaps, because of what he had already accomplished. A native of Northern Ireland, he went straight from a fast-track career at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to a major role on the West End. Soon, he was showing up on stage and on television in roles of increasing prominence.

After two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company playing major parts, including Henry V, and even writing a play himself, Branagh did a couple of films -- "High Season" and "A Month in the Country" -- then launched his career as a producer with fellow actor David Parfitt by establishing the Renaissance Theatre Company.

No, "renaissance" doesn't refer to his personal career.

"The name came to me in the middle of the night," he said. "Our company belief is the reassertion of the actor's role. Not that the actor should dominate the theater but that the actor should stop being lazy and rise to a certain level."

Branagh and Parfitt illustrated their beliefs by assigning productions to directors better known as actors -- Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan. When "Henry V" began to happen, all three of these, plus Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Brian Blessed, Alec McCowen, Robert Stephens and Richard Easton, became available for the film.

"The biggest flak I caught over the film," said Branagh of the inevitable comparisons with Olivier, "was that I made it at all. No matter if it was good or not, they said, I shouldn't have done it. It was vulgar, somehow."

Unlike Olivier's hymn to everything English, Branagh's "Henry V" is more a story of a young leader brought to abrupt maturity by the horrors of war. Both versions are by necessity trimmed, but Olivier's cuts are designed to emphasize the historic and patriotic aspects of the story whereas Branagh's decisions tend to make it more naturalistic and personal.

Also popular. The film has done well in England -- especially, says Branagh, in areas where the company also played -- and is being released this week in the United States. A San Diego engagement opens Dec. 15 at the Park Theater.

And, in January, Southern California audiences will have a look at Branagh in the flesh when the Rennaissance Theatre Company opens a 10-week engagement at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum. The boss will stage a repertoire of two Shakespeare plays -- "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- and play the minor roles of Edgar and Peter Quince.

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