Lost for Words on Richard III
Kenneth Branagh is playing Richard III in Sheffield next week. Lynda Murdin finds that trying to discover more is a frustrating experience.

Yorkshire Post, 7 March 2002
by Lynda Murdin
** Thanks, Ngoc

It's difficult - if not impossible - to get Kenneth Branagh to give a straight answer to questions about something close to him. He has the ability of a politician trained in media manipulation to talk an issue out of time, without actually saying very much.

Or am I the failure? As a journalist, I haven't elicited much of a story. You can stop reading if you like. And I'm not even inquiring about Branagh's divorce from Emma Thompson, or the end of his relationship with Helena Bonham Carter. All I want to know is - how will he be interpreting the title role of Richard III when it opens at the Sheffield Crucible? Not a lot to ask, really. Perhaps my story revolves around the fact that he's not prepared to say.

Could his imminent return to the stage, virtually after an absence of 10 years, be that important to him? He's certainly smoking like a man under severe pressure. On this personal detail, he is at least less guarded, saying he knows smoking makes him a "social leper".

Stubbing out a cigarette, he adds: "We all know it's a stupid, filthy habit and sooner than later it will be gone. Giving up while you're doing Richard III is not the easiest thing in world. The shame I feel at being a smoker is total. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I haven't been smoking that long, actually..." Really? How long? How many a day? "With the greatest respect" - he declines to say.

The world awaits Branagh's return to live performance. He says his absence was just one of those things, life goes in cycles, he now has "the appetite" to return.

There's added piquancy because the star of TV's recent dramas, 'Shackleton' and 'Conspiracy', once tipped as the next Laurence Olivier, but then seduced away from theatre by film-making, has chosen to make his comeback not in London's West End but in Yorkshire.

The Crucible's box office phones have been working overtime. Inquiries have come from as far afield as America and Japan. The run - previews start on March 13 with the opening night on March 19 - was immediately sold out.

Four extra performances were added, extending it to April 10. Tickets for those went in a flash. Only returns and standbys are now available. Expect queues around the block.

'Richard III' is directed by Michael Grandage, associate director of Sheffield Theatres, who has huge clout in London because of his successful dual association with the fashionable Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. It was he who attracted Hollywood's Joseph Fiennes to the Crucible to star last year in 'Edward II'. And now we must welcome Branagh, himself a film and theatre director. Indeed, Branagh directed the current West End hit 'The Play What I Wrote', recent winner of two Olivier Awards, one for best comedy. He even appeared as the guest star in this tribute to Morecambe and Wise just before Christmas - a stint which, if truth be known, was actually his first return to the stage for almost decade: "It was good fun and a way of reminding one of the live audience." Other recent work is likewise less taxing - playing Gilderoy Lockhart, Professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts, in the second Harry Potter film - work which he completes after the Sheffield run.

So how is he going to interpret Shakespeare's "bottl'd spider?" Antony Sher famously scuttled around on NHS crutches; Ian McKellen was a Fascist leader.

Puffing on another cigarette, Branagh replies: "Without being coy, I don't want to go into too much detail. One of the strengths in the way Michael works is that it does emerge from what's happening. We're trying to make the best use of the very exciting possibilities of this theatre." Is the play being set in a particular period? "We don't want to strain too hard for a contemporary look. I don't think you'll see people with Nike trainers on or that kind of thing, but the absolute essential is to make it contemporary in feel.

"It may happen to be about a king who reigned in 1485 but the politics, the family drama, the betrayals, the jealousies and the tensions are entirely recognisable to a contemporary audience. That's what we want to bring out." How do you view Richard himself, isn't he almost a caricature of evil? "There's much debate among historians and scholars about the man's character. Many people argue that he was in fact a very good king. The things he did during his brief reign of 26 months were very effective. Some argue about how much he directly had to do with the famous incidents like the death of Clarence or the deaths of the princes in the tower. What the play does, without excusing anyone, is to suggest that it was a tremendously bloody period in English history when many people had blood on their own hands, many people had committed treacherous acts, had betrayed family members, had changed sides. Richard was not unique in this. Considering that, as an actor you approach the part - even if the label has stuck as a grotesquely evil figure - looking for the humanity in the man, for the complexity in the man..." What preparation have you done for the role? "Michael and I have been talking about it for about a year and I've been thinking about the role many years ahead of that. It was always something I hoped might come my way. So it was a play I kept reading and rereading.

"I've also read biographies of Richard III, visited the tower, been to the Bosworth battlefield - that side of things I find very interesting, the totemic touching of things.

"It was fascinating to visit the area of the tower in which Clarence might have been incarcerated, to get a physical sense of that building, to go to Bosworth, get a sense of that battlefield itself, what it might physically mean to command an army, imagine what seven or eight thousand people on one hill would look like. Before opening night, I hope to visit Middleham in North Yorkshire where Richard spent much of his time. He was a great northerner, a terrifically effective warlord for his brother. That produces much of the resentment because to some extent while they're at peace, he's dismissed and disregarded. Because of his disability he's disregarded."

"He's insulted probably more than any other character in Shakespeare, every kind of ruthless adjective is thrown at him - `bunch-backed toad' `lump of foul deformity'. They do not mince their words about what the Elizabethans chose to think was an illustration of your inner life. If you were deformed on the outside, it was the Elizabethan version of bad karma.

"We're definitely trying to clean the slate and bring in things that come from the shared discussion of the scenes and the characters and have no reference to any idea we have at the beginning. We're trying to take as much premeditation away from it as possible. It's important we don't play as if somehow we all know what's going to happen next. I would like to think that as we go along anything could happen at any moment.

"There's a real element of thriller in this."

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