Thursday, July 4, 2013

Kenneth Branagh: lost Shakespearean? Kenneth Branagh seemed to give up on Shakespeare. But now he's come back to the playwright who made his name, says Dominic Cavendish. (TELEGRAPH)

By Dominic Cavendish, Theatre Critic 7:10AM BST  04 Jul 2013

Kenneth Branagh in the film Henry V

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 marveled 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-radicalized 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”.


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