Kenneth Branagh Reflects on Hamlet

Houston Public News, January 1997
by Michael Bergeron

"Walk this way," says Kenneth Branagh, motioning me over to one side of his room at the Houstonian. Not forgetting the same line as interpreted by Groucho Marx, Branagh mimics the leader of the Marx Brothers as we sit down by the window.

In the brief span since his directorial debut with Henry V in 1989, Branagh has produced an extraordinary body of work, most of which he also directed. It goes without saying that Branagh is the most accomplished Shakespearean actor of our time, just as Lord Olivier was of his generation. Branagh has come to Houston to promote his latest excursion into the Bard, nothing less than the filmed version of the complete text of Hamlet.

Branagh's Shakespeare films have redefined the way modern actors attempt classical theater, with a sure combination of established Brit thespians and popular Yank actors. Like 1993's Much Ado About Nothing, the complete Hamlet takes in both sides of the Atlantic, with Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Jack Lemmon sharing screen time with British stalwarts of the stage like Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud and Richard Attenbourgh. Showing an international flair, Branagh has cast the often deleted part of Reynaldo with Gerard Depardieu, and another credit merely lists the Duke of Marlborough (Fortinbra's general, a non-speaking role). The film was shot in the 70mm process and runs three hours and 58 minutes, not including the intermission. Those looking for a full evening's entertainment need only turn their gaze toward Hamlet.

"You're trying to produce the art that hides the art. And if you're successful, and it works, people don't see it," muses Branagh.

"We'll see how this one goes. We obviously put our guts into this one and we feel very passionately about it," Branagh says. "So much of what we did in previous films, and our work on the stage has gone into it -- it's hard to make it simple and yet make it resonate, full of complexity."

If it's a matter of raising money to film Shakespeare, Branagh is the first to note that the money men are fiscally brutal, more likely to pay attention to Hamlet''s grosses than the possibility of Branagh tackling, say, Macbeth. Branagh's Hamlet was budgeted at $18-million, roughly less than the advertising allocation on a typical studio film.

The previous night, Branagh had introduced the Houston premiere of Hamlet at a benefit for the Houston Shakespeare Society. Upon being given a proclamation by Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, presented by University of Houston drama professor Dr. Sidney Berger, announcing Kenneth Branagh Day, Branagh assures the audience, decidedly tongue-in-cheek, "While you watch the film, I'm going to be on the phone telling everybody how marvelous Houston is." Before the film unspools, Branagh regales the assembled with a story about the time, long ago, when his troupe was presenting Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet in repertory for Danish schoolchildren. One of Hamlet's oft-spoken lines is something to the effect of how "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

It seems at one point in the performance, the young audience started to stand up. "I've nothing against the Danish children, but it's just hard for some of the gags," Branagh said to solid laughs. Branagh thought they were receiving a standing ovation in the middle of one of the play's acts. In reality, the children, the stage on one side, the sea on the other, were standing to observe an air-sea rescue. Not missing a beat Branagh turned to watch the daring rescue and at its end gave applause. "That," Branagh noted, "Was my experience in free Shakespeare."

For the main soliloquy (there is more than one soliloquy in the play) Branagh wanted Hamlet to confront himself in a mirror. "One of the central images I'd wanted to put on film was Hamlet doing 'To be or not to be,' into a mirror" -- Branagh says, -- "Literally talking to himself but also seeing reflections of himself all over the place." The result of a court where their vanity is reflected, the main set was a huge royal assembly hall, completely lined with two stories of mirrors."

But staging the scene with mirrors was only half the problem. "The focus-puller is working with an inch and a half depth of field. We're on a dolly; it's a technically difficult shot to keep in focus. Add to that a 360-degree shot around a hall of mirrors, where it's not just about being seen in that mirror -- you might be seen in that mirror or that mirror, and catch it reflected somewhere else," explains Branagh. "It's the kind of thing producers get nervous about, because in committing yourself to doing a shot like that for three or four pages, rehearsing it may take until four in the afternoon. My experience is that you'll shoot 15 takes and get one that works.

"My thing is to find a period setting or images from famous moments that you want, to render natural, elemental things. You use the period setting to release the play rather than contain it," said Branagh.

"I try to avoid period concepts which contain the play. It may work brilliantly for certain themes, but it's so vast that you want to open it up for the audience's imagination.

"I was once going to do a version of Romeo and Juliet that was set in Belfast, with the Capulets as Catholics and the Montagues as Protestants. Which is all very well, lots of strong images to be had, but that makes it a story about a religious feud, which it isn't," Branagh nodded. "It's a household feud. For me the challenge is making sure that the world you set the play in releases as much of the play as possible.

"Our Hamlet setting is impressionistic. We're not going for a particular year and particular country. We borrow shapes and images from the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs. Just a general sense of a period where large, extended royal families rule Europe, and were always arguing, always changing the borders, and there's always intrigue and scandal, mad princes," stated Branagh, leaning back and talking a drag off his cigarette. "Hamlet isn't about 1850 in Russia; it's just a good point to start from."

On the day that Derek Jacobi (Dead Again, Day of the Jackal) wrapped as Claudius, he presented Branagh with a red-bound copy of Hamlet. Only this particular book has been passed down from the turn-of-the-century actor Forbes Robertson, and along the way sat on the shelves of Henry Ainley, Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole, and Jacobi, among others. This is totally fitting, since it was the sight of Jacobi playing Hamlet that inspired Branagh at age 15 to become an actor. Likewise, Branagh will one day pass this book onto the leading Shakespearean actor of a future generation.

Branagh collects items from actors of the past. For instance, he has an autographed photo of famed 19th-century American thespian Edwin Booth. Another actor closer to Shakespeare's time, David Garrick, was credited with milking the fright value of seeing a ghost. Garrick wore a fright wig, and when he pulled hidden strings, his hair would stand on end. Will Kemp, who would've played the gravedigger in the original production of Hamlet, was an actor who eventually was thrown out of that company because he was always ad-libbing.

"Remember in Reds," recalls Branagh. "Warren Beatty has a moment with Jerzy Kosinski right before the train blows up: 'Don't re-write what I write.' I have visions of Shakespeare taking Will Kemp to one side and saying, 'Don't fuck up what I write. This is funny. I don't need your stupid gags.'"

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