Kenneth Branagh: lost Shakespearean?

4th July 2013

Kenneth Branagh seemed to give up on Shakespeare. Now he’s come back to the playwright who made his name. First published in the Daily Telegraph, 04 July 04 2013, ahead of the Manchester International Festival run of Macbeth.

The other day I found myself spending a fruitless hour pacing the backstreets of Manchester in the hope of stumbling across the as-yet-undisclosed deconsecrated church where Kenneth Branagh (Sir Kenneth since last November) will present his Macbeth as part of the city’s biennial International Festival, which is almost upon us.

The reason wasn’t so much journalistic as nostalgic. I hadn’t managed to bag a ticket in advance – all availability went in nine minutes – and the fancy possessed me that perhaps if I laid eyes on the building I’d get closer to the spirit of the project.

Closer, if I’m honest, to Ken. Almost unwittingly I found myself succumbing to something I hadn’t experienced for 25 years: what was once known as Branagh-mania. The reflex action whirled me back to my teenage self, queuing outside the Phoenix Theatre, fresh out of school – an age when to be young was pretty groovy but to see the talk of the town giving his Hamlet was very heaven.

In 1988, when you thought of Branagh, you thought of the Bard – and marvelled at how sexy, exciting and fresh-minted he had made the “sweet swan of Avon” seem. The Belfast-born boy-wonder, who blazed a self-radicalised trail out of Reading, where his family moved after the start of the Troubles, made those of us half in love with theatre fully smitten, and rather doting on him, too.

Aged 23 and barely out of the swaddling clothes of drama school, he had seized the crowning role of Henry V at the RSC, bestriding its stages like the proverbial colossus – even daring to consult Prince Charles about the role – only to decide afterwards that it would be better if he could run his own company, and lead from the front.

Such certainty, such vigour, such chutzpah! He was the model of the new can-do age while harking back to the mythical world of Olivier (with whom he was ceaselessly compared) and all the great knights fighting the good fight for immortal nights out with every syllable of perfectly enunciated, rapier-sharp Shakespearean utterance.

He hung out with the right crowd – Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Geraldine McEwen. In fact he did more than just hang out with them, he incorporated them into his gang, the Renaissance Theatre Company. The company started its 1988 campaign in Birmingham before sweeping into the West End. Critics and audiences alike adored the company’s Much Ado – in which he twinkled mischievously as Benedick opposite Samantha Bond’s foxy Beatrice.

They delighted at As You Like It, in which he dazzled as the fool Touchstone – the Guardian’s Michael Billington declaring “Mr Branagh actually makes you wait impatiently for every appearance of Shakespeare’s unfunniest clown”. And they kissed the hem of his Hamlet, in which his dazzling Great Dane, as the Financial Times’ reviewer wryly noted, “went to his death with a sardonic dash worthy of Douglas Fairbanks, blond hair kept at bay by the sword-free hand”.

I’m not sure how much of the detail of that performance I remember. It was the matey naturalism, the unforced beauty and fleet intelligence of his delivery I chiefly recall, the emphasis never landing in the obvious place while yet avoiding affectation. That and all the glamour of the behind-the-scenes drama: the romance with bride-to-be Emma Thompson – Vivien Leigh to his Larry – the brazen precocity of his biography, Beginning, published a year later, and simultaneous hurtling dash into the bosom of Dame Cinema. Yes, his was the name on everyone’s lips.

What followed is the stuff if not of Shakespearean tragedy then of salutary lessons. Branagh got his film career all right – and his entry to Hollywood – but back home the man who once could do no wrong could suddenly do no right. By the time he had set about reprising Hamlet – for the RSC in 1992 – the backlash was well under way. Such was the carping that Dench and Briers rode to his defence, the latter complaining: “It makes me so angry, it’s all so unnecessary and I don’t like it. What does he do? He creates employment, he is dedicated to Shakespeare, he’s a workaholic. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to knock someone who can do these things. In my book, he’s heroic.”

But to others he was luvviedom personified. “Maybe it’s the nature of this country, it’s so small and insular that you go through a kind of family relationship and get told off a lot,” he remarked around this time. Famously thin-lipped, he tried to be thick-skinned but the attacks drove him from interviews and pushed him away from theatreland.

You could grasp what the fuss had been about by watching the films – Henry V, Much Ado, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It. He arguably eclipsed Olivier in bringing the Bard to the cinema-going masses. Yet Shakespeare on screen is no match for Shakespeare on stage.

Only when Michael Grandage lured him to Sheffield in 2002 to play Richard III did he regain some confidence in a realm that was once seemingly his as a birthright. But few by this point spoke of him as the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation. The talk was of Mark Rylance or Simon Russell Beale. Hell, we’ve even seen more of Kevin Spacey this last decade than of our Ken.

While busy as ever, and making waves anew in film (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Harry Potter and, oh the irony, playing Olivier in My Week With Marilyn) as well as on TV – with the serial Shackleton or the Swedish-based detective series Wallander – it was as if he had deserted the cause, lost faith. About his stint in Sheffield, Grandage noted: “I think there were some real demons to be faced about having to go back on stage after ten years away, and somewhere there was an internal battle going on about his need to get over it and get on stage and go ‘Yes, here I am.’ ”

Older, more rugged, more battle-hardened – his puppyish springtime looks and frolicsome relationship with Emma Thompson a thing of the cuttings archives – Branagh at 52 is now fully life-fit for Macbeth, a role you feel isn’t so much an invitation to confront demons as perform a full exorcism. Since Richard, he has flexed his thespian muscles to acclaim in unlovely roles detailing tarnished souls – David Mamet’s Edmond at the National and Chekhov’s Ivanov in the West End – but they don’t get more flawed, anguished or wounded than Macbeth. He has been “circling around it” for ages, he has said, “but didn’t know what to do with it.”

Or perhaps wasn’t sure what it would do with him? Isn’t Macbeth – even more than Richard – the tale of a man who bends the natural order of time, rising to the top at breakneck speed, only to watch things unravel? No one got slaughtered by Branagh in his headlong rise, but perhaps some part of him got obscurely damaged.

One thing’s for sure – it profits no one to let slip the dogs of Branagh-mania again. Whether I’m lucky enough to witness his return to the Shakespearean fold or not, it’s only wise to take a step back, put the hysteria on hold and just give the guy a break.

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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