Samantha Bond: When I Kissed Branagh As Romeo We Both Blushed Scarlet
Ken and I Were So Young, Innocent and Excited When We Played Shakespeare's Lovers

The Guardian, 9 June 2014         See the photos
By Samantha Bond
Thanks Virginia

It was 1986 and Kenneth Branagh was about to play Romeo but didn't yet know who he wanted for Juliet. He said to the casting director Sophie Marshall: "Have you seen anyone? Because I'm a bit stuck." And Sophie said: "Well, I haven't actually seen her working, but there's this bright young actress at Bristol Old Vic… "

So I was called to London for this interview with Ken. I don't remember much – except that it was terrifying. I was going from the rep system to suddenly meeting this West End leading man. The fact that he was only a year older than me – I was 24 and he was 25 – was irrelevant. He was already a big thing. He'd been in the BBC's Northern Irish Billy trilogy, I'd seen him in 'Another Country', and in Stratford. But we were complete strangers to each other.

I had done some Shakespeare before: Phoebe in 'As You Like It' and Hero in 'Much Ado About Nothing'. But Juliet was a part I had never read. In the ballet, which I knew well, she is very feisty – with her maid and her mother and her lover. But I never imagined that a redhead like me might play her on stage. I thought she was small and dark and pale.

The phone rang a couple of hours after the interview and it was David Parfitt, Ken's right-hand man. Did I feel I was too old to play Juliet, he asked me. I'd just played an 18-year-old on television so I thought: I can get away with 16 on stage. I remember with great excitement picking up a copy of the script in person and there, on the cover, was a strawberry blonde.

The production was in the studio at the Lyric Hammersmith – we were all paid £100 a week. Ken was directing as well as playing Romeo and the whole thing felt very new and different. Actors didn't set up companies like that in the way they do now. We also had Hugh Cruttwell who had been Ken's principal at Rada. Ken is brilliant at enlivening verse but if we needed any help with the language, Hugh was there in rehearsals. We all know when we see bad productions of Shakespeare, where you can't understand what the actors are talking about. It's usually when the actors don't understand either.

When you see a good one, the language lives and there's nothing more thrilling. There is the great exchange in Romeo and Juliet when the two of them first meet at the party. He goes in for the kiss and she has that lovely line: "You kiss by the book." Because Ken and I are both strawberry blondes with freckles, we went absolutely scarlet the first time we did it. I wish that I could have blushed that way every night. We were so young and innocent and excited. I only remember the one notice: "They may not be the best Romeo and Juliet, but they are certainly the quickest."

The production was a huge catapult for my career. When we opened we were the hottest ticket in town – you couldn't get a seat. Suddenly big television producers were offering me lead parts. I had been quietly climbing up a ladder – then I did 'Romeo and Juliet' with Ken and I was eight rungs up.

We went on to do other things together. He set up his Renaissance theatre company and one of the first things they did was take 'Much Ado About Nothing', 'As You Like It' and 'Hamlet' out on tour, directed by Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan and Derek Jacobi. Ken and I played Benedick and Beatrice.

It was brilliant. In 'Much Ado', Benedick and Beatrice have a past – they know that something didn't happen quite like it should have done for them. And of course, less than two years earlier, we had played that story – and in the same language. People did say to us before 'Much Ado' opened: "You are too young to do it." But we were still only 26 and 27, and because we had the romance of 'Romeo and Juliet' behind us, the whole thing felt as though it was fully informed.

But Juliet is a young woman's role. With everything life teaches you about love and pain and loss, it would be amazing to re-address the part. But unfortunately one can't. And perhaps that's part of it. I watched a documentary about Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, who famously played Juliet in her youth. She started to quote the balcony scene on camera and when you watch this little old lady saying those lines, everything makes sense. But that's the irony about actors. When we're finally old enough to understand a role, we're too old to be cast.

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