Branagh: A Comet's Tale

By Sean French, Vogue, 1984
* Thanks to Jude Tessel

Kenneth Branagh, it seems, sprang into the world of acting fully formed. Three years ago he was plucked from drama school, and an Equity card was discreetly acquired for him so that he could star in the first West End production of Julian Mitchell's 'Another Country'. He was highly praised, the production was a great success and it all made a wonderful story in the press.

Since then he has progressed without much difficulty except for the distracting sound of gnashing teeth proceeding from envious fellow actors. He has done excellent work, mainly on television. His only failure to date was in the title role of Julian Mitchell's follow-up to 'Another Country', 'St. Francis', which began and ended in Greenwich.

Now - still in his early twenties - he takes another remarkable step forward with three major roles in the new Stratford season of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He will play the King of Navarre in Barry Kyle's 'Love's Labour's Lost', and Laertes to Roger Ree's Hamlet in Ron Daniel's production. And he has already opened as Henry V.

It is difficult to make young Harry acceptable to a modern audience. He can seem rather like a psychopathic boy scout, invading France, massacring prisoners, executing his old drinking cronies Bardolph and Corporal Nym, and making the St. Crispin's day speech, the most famous incitement to violence in our language.

Laurence Olivier's rousing portrayal we can accept as necessary wartime propoganda and Alan Howard's recent Harry was a fanatical, tormented brigand and not unlike his Coriolanus. In the light of this, the coherence and sympathy of Kenneth Branagh's performance is astonishing.

Branagh can look unprepossessing in repose, a slightly stolid countenance topped with a mop of fairish hair. But his stage presence, his icily controlled energy in front of an audience, is unique in his generation. In 'Another Country', he played Judd the schoolboy, whose benevolent Marxism sprang entirely from his sense of aggrieved injustice. His performance stood out from the production not in its brilliance but in its stillness and warmth.

As a schizophrenic in the BBC television series 'Maybury', his characterisation went through kaleidoscopic changes of mood, by turns manically witty, gloomy, cruel, violent, sullen, tender, gauche, sometimes bursting beyond any control including his own. It was passionately accomplished, and through all his terrible behaviour you could just about see why the psychiatrist (played by Patrick Stewart) liked and wanted to help him.

With the help of director Adrian Noble, his Henry V is above all a clear and logical portrait. The king decides that his claim for France is just and then, though he has his doubts, assumes the confident facade that is essential for an inspirational military leader. Branagh can think this through but - which is everything - he can peform it seamlessly as well. An example: Harry's St. Crispin's Day speech occurs immediately after he has almost collapsed beneath his crippling fear of defeat. He stumbles out to address the troops barely able to suppress his apprehension. His rabble-rousing oration is as much a battle against his own fear as that of his men.

Kenneth Branagh's exciting debut at the RSC has confirmed him as one of those young actors - Anthony Sher and Simon Callow are two others - whom one will seek out wherever they appear.

Accompanying quote by Ken:   "I consider myself an instinctive actor: You can lose your emotional response to the words in rehearsal but eventually come to a deeper response - a weight of thought driven by instinct..."

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