Interview With Kenneth Branagh

November 2015
Thanks, Kate, Fathom Events, Bender/Helper Impact

Youíve directed and starred in many projects. Do you take a different approach to directing when youíre also a member of the cast?

Itís always very positive working with Rob Ashford because heís a genuine co-director, so the difficult thing of trying to be in two places at once is removed. A lot of our co-directing work happens ahead of the rehearsal room period, so while I perform I concentrate on the role and the scene. At the beginning and end of the day we talk about observations Iíve had from inside the play. It works very well to have someone absolutely inside it and someone absolutely outside it. When it comes to this season that is the distinctive quality Ė thereís a genuine partnership behind the creation of both the production and the performance.

How do you think your stage production of 'The Winterís Tale' will translate to the big screen?

At the Garrick Theatre, because of the way the building is constructed, there is a sense of a cinema-like widescreen view from both the stalls and the circles. There is a beautiful horizontal view that chimes perfectly with the 2:35:1 cinema ratio. As a result our minds were always playing in widescreen when we were constructing the winter world of Sicilia and the spring/summer world of Bohemia, so the marriage between theatre and film was woven in from the beginning of our plans. I feel itís an exciting and very happy marriage.

Were there accommodations made to the stage production so it could be filmed for cinema?

I think there has always been an awareness of how the two mediums can best convey the message. The first three acts of 'The Winterís Tale' are psychological drama, which encourage the audience to experience the chaos that starts to occupy Leontesí mind as he falls prey to the demon of jealousy. In a way itís like an internal monologue. In the theatre, the desire was always to be inclusive of the audience and to let them feel as though they were eavesdropping, for them to be unwittingly part of Leontesí internal monologue. The film camera goes one step further in getting even closer and making it more uncomfortable, so the visceral experience is different but just as powerful. Our approach, be it theatrical or cinematic, was to look for a psychological realism, so the audience could look at this man doing appalling things-albeit because he believed himself to be Ďrightíí- and think Ďthere but for the grace of God go Ií.

Does that cinematic experience jar with that of a theatre audience member?

I see it more as an exciting tension. Personally I like my cinema experience of a play to not merely be a record of what was going on in the building that night; I love those involved in capturing it to meet the spirit of that production. So if a claustrophobic pyscho-drama is part of what the first three acts of The Winterís Tale produces in the theatre, I want the film to get me closer into that world. And when it comes to the visceral experience of the theatre, where you can literally feel the thumps of feet on the floor during dancing sequences in the fourth act, Iíd like film to also meet that challenge. So thereíll be a different, cutting rhythm to that sequence in order to convey a greater sense of that scene. Thereís a percentage of enhancement and translation that goes into analysing the spirit of the production and then conveying it in the medium in which it now sits. And it keeps the theatre production honest. If performers have moments that produce a laugh, but that may have become a bit mechanical, the film camera requires that as a performer you have to retain the truthful position Ė to recreate, not just repeat. In that way the filmed performance can reinvigorate the production.

For audiences that are less familiar with Shakespeare, can you offer any advice on how best to embrace it?

When people ask me whether they should read the play beforehand, I always say no, because if weíve done our job well there should be nothing between you and the play. One thing I learned early on as a viewer of Shakespeare is that itís ok if you donít understand everything, because when it works well, the intention behind the whole sentence will be such that you will intuit exactly whatís going on. A friend who hadnít seen 'The Winterís Tale' before came to see it the other night and he said the only disappointing element of his evening was that he HAD read a synopsis of the play beforehand. He said if he hadnít he would have had such a magical treat because the play is endlessly surprising and has some genuine shocks that he would have enjoyed experiencing for the first time. The other thing is that itís ok not to enjoy everything Ė one doesnít have to have an uncritical, slavish appreciation of Shakespeare. His theatre was used to robust criticism. I imagine so was he- maybe thatís why he wrote so many plays!

Youíre one of the most highly acclaimed Shakespeare practitioners; do you feel pressure to continue topping your success?

I choose not to feel that kind of pressure. Itís best if you mark your own scorecard and with Shakespeare, you never get to the end of whatís possible. You canít realise the potential of something that has such a level of richness. So your goal is not so much to be led by a series of outside expectations, although of course youíre thrilled and delighted if people enjoy it, itís more about how far you get with the work itself. How honestly, directly, simply, clearly were those words spoken? Can you do better next time? The goal each time is to see if you can, rigorously from a technical point of view but also joyously from a creative point of view, go further into the work. Like great music or great poetry, these master works have a power even beyond oneís own conscious understanding of them Ė they sing of their own volition. Youíre constantly motivated by trying to get further in that direction, rather than being intimidated by the notion that you might disappoint. Shakespeare is so good and always works so well that itís hard to mess up what he does. Itís important to get out of his way. He then makes you look good, so Iím a great beneficiary of the talent of somebody who went long before me.

Youíve worked with Benjamin Caron, who is directing the filming of the production, before. How have the two of you planned to translate 'The Winterís Tale' to the screen?

Coming from a television and film background Ben was very open about how best to translate the production to the screen. He was keen to know what Rob and my intentions were regarding the mood of certain scenes, and our use of music and linking passages, so he could establish how they should be filmed. What I found to be particularly helpful was that he is extremely sensitive to performance and atmosphere, as his work on the 'Wallander' series proves. He also has a very strong sense of humour, so his feel for how to edit the comedy in the fourth act is very strong. Working with Ben has been a long and very fruitful conversation. This screening has had a lot of loving care lavished upon it, with many challenges, problems and issues being talked about a long way in advance. Ben has been with us since the first day of rehearsals in the theatre, and that history and rapport means that he has as sensitive an approach to handling the material as we could hope for, and much more than is usually possible to maintain when putting on a broadcast of a theatre show.

Whatís next for the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, and are there plans to broadcast additional theatre productions in US cinemas?

Weíre three plays into our seven-play season, and weíre very excited about our next production 'Red Velvet', about the black actor Ira Aldridge, and then a French farce called 'The Painkiller'. Our next Shakespeare production will be broadcast to cinemas in the US, and that is 'Romeo and Juliet' featuring Lily James and Richard Madden who starred in our recent film of 'Cinderella', alongside Derek Jacobi as Mercutio. I think it will be a very fast-moving, very musical, very filmic approach to this familiar but ever resonant and passionate play. Weíre already planning how it translates to film, even this distance out. Our final production of the season is 'The Entertainer', John Osborneís classic about the end of the British music hall and the life of one particular family who live through a big moment in Britainís changing history. Itís full of invective and itís full of drama and music and dance. It will also appear in cinemas across the US, and we hope that if we can build an appreciative and loyal audience for our cinema broadcasts that future work from our company will also find its way there. Weíre very excited to begin with 'The Winterís Tale' and hope that we can encourage audiences to return.

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