Don't Get Mad, Play Hamlet

Daily Telegraph, February 15, 1997
by Hugo Davenport

In his new film, Kenneth Branagh performs with terrifying fury. And the anger is real, he tells Hugo Davenport

WHAT is the quality least often associated with Kenneth Branagh? Anger, probably. Self-deprecating, positive, adventurous, hard-working, ambitious and, of course, talented - all these adjectives are routinely trotted out. And yet what journalists always want to know is how he feels now about the split with Emma Thompson. Is he still smarting?

If they ask they find themselves politely stonewalled. Branagh is the soul of articulate affability when discussing his work; trespass flat-footed into the disordered dressing-room of private emotion and you will find a guarded individual.

Yes, he says blandly, he would be delighted to work with Thompson again. No hard feelings. Soul-baring isn't Branagh's style, except in character.

A more fruitful question, given that his latest venture is a full-length cinematic Hamlet, concerns the relationship between an actor's emotional state and his performance. In the US, critical praise for the film, which opens here tomorrow, has stressed its lucidity, vigour and breadth. Yet its submerged power source is, without a doubt, anger. Veiled and transmuted perhaps, but anger even so.

Hamlet is a terrific role to play if you are feeling a bit betrayed or vengeful, even murderous. So how could cheery, unpretentious Branagh make such a memorable Hamlet? "Our Ken", to use the patronising phrase favoured by so many profiles, has the actor's knack of sublimating.

"I think I'm perceived essentially as a sunny chap who gets on with it," he says. "In the past I've resisted giving too much of myself away. Or I've decided, in an almost perverse way, that I'm not suddenly going to be dark and brooding just because people don't think I've got it in me."

He admits that it isn't always possible to keep emotions in a locked cupboard, however professional one's approach. "You can't pretend that you are incredibly sussed and sorted if you are dealing with material that is inevitably churning up in your own mind things that are very personal. It just has more life in it - more painful and rather ugly life, maybe, but it's alive.

"It has been a ghastly couple of years; ghastly on a personal level. In the process of playing this part I released into it absolutely everything one could be as a human being. There's one shot where it even scares me - the nunnery scene. When they saw the first cut, someone said, 'Are there any jollier bits? You're so angry in this: it's the angriest Hamlet I've ever seen.' "

Aside from his personal life, the other "ghastly" experience was the critical drubbing received by the 1994 film Frankenstein, which Branagh directed and starred in. "I think the whole experience of Frankenstein was very salutary. I felt I'd had such a bashing. By the end of it, you feel that somewhere you have changed. As a result, I felt more relaxed about doing Hamlet, more open. I worry less about how it will be received."

Once more donning both director's cap and the costume of the leading man, Branagh has now brought all three Shakespearean genres to the big screen: first, a blend of heroics and implied anti-war sentiment in a history play, Henry V; next, the Chiantishire sparkle and verbal duelling of a comedy in Much Ado About Nothing; and now, after several prefatory goes at the role on stage, the most problematic of the tragedies.

The film is done on the grand scale, shot in 70mm at Blenheim Palace. A cavernous set of swivelling mirrors conceals the festering morass of conspiracy and paranoia in smaller chambers behind. The action is shifted to the mid-19th century, on tenuous but defensible grounds, and Branagh once more brings off his customary juxtaposition of British stalwarts in principal roles with big Hollywood names in the smaller parts.

But what of the role itself: what manner of Hamlet did he seek to project? Previous forays into the role have left him well versed in the text and its physical demands; thus he was able to throw himself into it in a full-blooded, instinctive way, reserving his intellectual energies for the demands of directing. Indeed, he says he actively shied away from interpretive feedback from collaborators on set.

"We've not created a Hamlet in whom we have a man disposed to be melancholy," he says. "We've taken at face value everything that anyone else in the play says about him - which is that he's positive, vibrant, intellectually curious; someone who's popular with the populace, who really ought to have been king. A Renaissance man.

"This is a man who, in the 'What a piece of work is man' speech, gives five instances of clinical depression that he is suffering from; it's almost a textbook situation. But the point is, he's not normally like this. He's in this mood because he is in mourning for his father and his mother has married his uncle within one month of the death. So this is a Hamlet who is not mad.

"I also think he is not indecisive. I disagree with Olivier's thing at the beginning of his film: 'This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.' From the moment his father tells him of his murder, he decides he must act.

"What he then has to deal with is his inability to act. Somewhere in Hamlet - and I think we can all identify with this - there's a basic moral revulsion for the idea that an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is the right way to resolve things."

If such a reading chimes with Branagh's perceived temperament, it makes him heir to a long tradition of actors revealing themselves through the role. "Somebody once described it as the greatest straight part ever written, because there's no make-up, no limp, no mask to hide behind. It's a very nakedly exposing role, but one from which you can learn a great deal as an actor; a sort of X-ray part.

"You're a vessel for Hamlet; but Hamlet is also a vessel for you. He's the most complex human being written in dramatic literature. And if you're playing it properly, Hamlet is the Hamlet you are at that moment; the culmination of wherever you've got to, as well as of your familiarity with the role.

"I find his struggle, his journey through the play, feels very contemporary. When I go to bookshops, I see shelves full of 'How to Love Yourself', 'How to Help Yourself', 'Seventeen Ways to Discover the Baby in You' - we're forever looking for the secret, some way of accepting that life is a rocky road, a bit of a tricky business."

So there you have it. Strange process, acting - part concealment, part self-revelation. Sometimes the appearance of offstage candour is merely the mask for a deeper strategy of disguise. Only the best actors, like Branagh, really understand how make-believe can also be the truest conduit to their own feelings, and so to ours.

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