LONDON TIMES – November 22 1992
Kenneth Branagh appears to think he is in a comedy sketch in which the interviewer is cast as the fall guy. Our question and answer routine is like something scripted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. All the punch lines hinge on the same word. ”Isn’t it stressful”, I ask, ”directing the woman you live with?” ”Well, as Hamlet would say…” ”Can you only achieve public success at the cost of private happiness?” ”You know what really fascinates me about Hamlet is…” ”Do you take part in the showbiz circuit?” ”I’m no good at small talk. Playing Hamlet reminds you of how precious life is.” Is he taking the mickey or what?
Branagh is 31. This production, directed by Adrian Noble for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is his fourth attempt to conquer the colossal role of Hamlet. His last essay was in 1989, with Derek Jacobi as director, the same year he married Emma Thompson at Cliveden, filmed and starred in Henry V, set up his own Renaissance Theatre Company and wrote his autobiography. His critics found the breadth and prodigiousness of all this activity perfectly nauseating. To attempt so much and at such a tender age was not only impertinent, it smacked of overweening ambition and a monstrous ego. How dare the whippersnapper challenge Lord Olivier’s epic Henry V with his own celluloid version? How tedious the Ken and Em show had become: a one-note samba, the couple endlessly playing different versions of themselves in The Fortunes of War, Look Back in Anger, and on and on; he appearing in her television series, she appearing in his plays and films.
But those seeking the comfort of schadenfreude were to be disappointed. There was no fall and, even more disconcertingly, whenever Branagh submitted himself to the scrutiny of the press, there did not seem to be too much pride either. If anything, he came across as such an unassuming, nice bloke, it was a bit of a letdown. Even his fans, however, must have wondered how a 28-year-old, regardless of his achievements, could think he had been around long enough to justify writing an autobiography. His response to the cavils was that he needed the money to buy office space for his theatre company. The book illuminates Branagh’s obsession with the part of Hamlet. It was seeing Jacobi in the role at the Oxford Playhouse that sharpened the starstruck schoolboy’s appetite to act. Not many years later, he chose the play for his final performance at Rada, taking note of Tyrone Guthrie’s advice, in A Life in the Theatre, that young actors should tackle the great roles at the start of their careers, so that there would be more chance of getting them right early on. ”I wanted one day to be a great Hamlet,” Branagh writes. ”I wanted to play Hamlet as many times as possible, so that each time I played it I would get better in the role, and would get closer to the truth of the character.”
”John Gielgud said that the play describes the very process of living.” Branagh is warming to his theme as we sit in a tiny, rather squalid eyrie in south London, during one of the company’s rehearsal breaks. ”I would compare Hamlet to a great piece of music or a poem. It’s something that you respond to with your insides. And that response is a little deeper, and a little richer, as you get, perhaps, a little older.” There is something puzzling about Branagh’s delivery at this early stage of our meeting. Each phrase, regardless of its insignificance, is carefully weighed and balanced before the next is pronounced. As he speaks, he stirs the air with his hand, in a precise little movement, like someone folding a cake mix. It is as though he is parodying Alan Whicker and Fanny Cradock simultaneously. It is the very reasonableness of his tone that appears artificial.
Perhaps because we suspect that actors are never not playing a part, it seems more natural when they are arch or mock-heroic, fantastically dotty or over-the-top camp. Why bother being Mr Ordinary, after all, when you can be Peter O’Toole?
It feels churlish to quibble about an actor’s lack of theatricality when it should make a refreshing change, and particularly since Branagh is such an affable interviewee. He is effortlessly courteous springing to the door every time anyone knocks, scrabbling around on the floor to fix the wonky table so that I can write my notes and he does something with his eyes which makes one see, despite what he describes with some accuracy as his nondescript features, why he has a reputation for being a ladies’ man. It is only, however, when he drops the measured pontificating to let off steam that one senses he is being himself.
We are discussing The Wedding. Had the couple intended it to be quite such a public spectacle? ”No, no, very much the reverse,” Branagh says. But it was not exactly a quiet, understated celebration, was it? The marriage even featured in Hello!, although the magazine did not attend the ceremony. ”The wedding was not quiet because there was nothing else going on in the country at the time,” he says. ”There was absolutely I’m here to tell you no pursuit of publicity for that wedding whatsoever, may God strike me dead now. The more we said, ‘Look, we’re just havin’ a do’, the more interest there was in it. The press was overdosing on us at the time.” (Thompson makes another appearance in a recent issue of Hello!, under the teasing banner ”Caring Actress Who Hopes Her Future Family Will Share In Her Commitment”, to publicise Oxfam’s fiftieth anniversary.)
There was no question that the couple would get married in a church because of Branagh’s antipathy to conventional religion. (His parents are Irish Protestants. The family moved from Belfast to Reading when Branagh was nine years old.) He starts off languidly enough: ”I don’t like churches. Never have done. I associate them with fire and brimstone. I find them oppressive places. They are the most joyless, soulless places. I hate them. ” And suddenly he is off, in a crackle of anger: ”I really hate them. I hate all that religious stuff. I hate what the Church of England does. There’s so much hypocrisy about what God is supposed to do. I come from a province where the whole place is divided because of it. Inevitably, there’s a personal connection with it. And what’s this about the Vatican having just endorsed the death penalty the other day? Great. Thanks. That will help promote human understanding, won’t it? Let’s kill the buggers. Then we could have hung the Guildford Four, couldn’t we?”
An animated Branagh can sound like a slightly arrested, bolshy undergraduate. The ”kind of”s, ”y’know”s and expletives come so thick and fast, they are in danger of obscuring the words in between. The effect is oddly reminiscent of the character he plays in his new film, Peter’s Friends. Come to think of it, he even seems to be wearing the same clothes: grey and black, an open-necked shirt, revealing a tuft of mousy chest hair, a casual jacket.
The film (produced by, directed by, and starring Branagh) is a sort of Oxbridge version of The Big Chill: a group of friends who were at university together meet up ten years later for a weekend reunion. Since Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery and Thompson were all at Cambridge together, as well as Martin Bergman, who co-wrote the script with Rita Rudner, one can guarantee the audience will be searching for autobiographical clues.
This process of identification can prove too elliptical. Many people assume, for instance, that because of the company he keeps and his glittering career, Branagh was part of the Footlights set. In fact, he went straight to Rada, with a set of undistinguished A-level results from a Reading comprehensive. He visited one of the Oxford colleges with a girl friend from Reading, and wrote about the experience in his autobiography. ”We sat in some ancient rooms at midnight, drinking port. Our host put a violin concerto by a little-known composer on the record player. The smooth-talking undergraduate next to me turned and spoke as if the effort might kill him: ‘They’re taking this at quite a lick, aren’t they?’ I smiled and shifted nervously in my seat, moving an enormous working-class chip from one shoulder to the other, and thought that this definitely wasn’t the place for me.”
”One of the myths about this film”, Branagh says, ”is that we are all as thick as thieves. I’m sure that some people will say it should be called Kenny’s Friends, when in fact I have no past history with them at all. It’s Em who goes way back with them. The other thing I’d like to say is should this company the RSC be known as Adrian’s Friends because vast numbers of people work regularly in this organisation? And look at Martin Scorsese’s films. Are people annoyed because Robert de Niro has worked with him six times? And, ‘Apparently, he knows him!”’
This is said, partly I am sure, as a pre-emptive strike to ward off the inevitable question about the Ken and Em partnership. How does the power dynamic work offstage? ”Um, um, um… the bottom line is as a director I wouldn’t be employing her if I didn’t think she was a fine actress,” Branagh replies, which is not exactly an answer to my question. ”I feel very lucky to have her. She’s one of our best. She is very much her own woman. She doesn’t back down from what she would normally say as an actress in response to a director. And I don’t back down either. She’s very good at being specific. She’ll say, ‘No, I don’t know what you mean. You’ll have to tell me again.’ It’s good for the other actors because it sets the example for a certain level of communication. In all honesty, it is very professional because I’m not interested in parading my personal life in front of the people I work with. Obviously our professional life is very warm, but we have our married life, as it were, away from work.”
Branagh is as evasive as a politician when he is asked questions he prefers not to answer. The more personal the enquiry, the more general his response. This probably explains why he persistently steers the conversation back to the comparatively safe terrain of Hamlet. When I point this out, he practically chokes on his sandwich and then mumbles something unintelligible about a walnut. Sorry? ”Em sometimes calls me a walnut because that’s how unemotional I could be.” Could you elaborate, please? ”I’ve always felt that ‘You’ve got to be strong’ male stuff. My dad’s very much like that. I think it’s a very natural thing to be protective of your own emotions, so that you make an advance decision not to involve yourself as much as you might. But I’m much less like that now.”
On one of his many forays into Hamlet’s character, Branagh mentions that everyone knows what it’s like to suffer from a broken heart. So what was his experience? This is probably below the belt, since one knows that he will be far too polite to say, ”Mind your own business.” Instead, he scrunches up the discarded wrappings of his sandwich with such deliberation, that we both crack up. When I ask whether the couple plan to have children he becomes spectacularly inarticulate: ”Yeh er that would be nice, that would be nice. Er. Er. I I I. You You You hope that you’ll have them and we do. Yeh.”
I wonder, since we must talk about Hamlet, whether it’s principally the pyrotechnics of the part, the fabulous rolling arias of the speeches, that explain the pull. ”I don’t say that it’s completely without ego”, Branagh says, ”but it isn’t just about putting on the tights and being a kind of mincing luvvie. For me, the part expresses doubts and concerns about whether there is any point in being alive at all. And I believe that everybody has those doubts, however embarrassing it is to talk about them.”
Branagh proceeds to launch into one of his key speeches, which convinces me that, if nothing else, he knows his lines. ”I mean, you’ve only got to say, ‘Well, what about Somalia?’ And that’s fine because we do feel and Hamlet feels, indeed, the extraordinary pressure of world events. ‘To be or not to be…’ is full of that. ‘Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?. Th’oppressor’s wrong (Yugoslavia), the proud man’s contumely (John Major), the pangs of despis’d love (everyone’s had their heart broken), the law’s delay (Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six) and the spurnsThat patient merit of th’unworthy takes (Anyone who’s had anything to do with the government or whatever). I mean, who would do this, you know, if you could actually take a dagger and kill yourself?”
It is tempting to invest our artists with damaged psyches, to somehow believe that they are making themselves whole through their art. But this is particularly wrong-footed in the case of Branagh. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, he has none of the existential angst of the young Danish prince he loves to play. He is an optimist who is fascinated by the preoccupations of the pessimist. But he is also more reflective and inward-looking than one might imagine he has time to be. (His current schedule is fairly typical: the days in punishing rehearsals; the evenings devoted to editing his forthcoming film of Much Ado About Nothing and planning his version of Frankenstein.) Last year, Branagh and Thompson went on a four-month walking holiday, staying in bed-and-breakfasts in Ireland and Scotland. Branagh says he desperately needed a break, an unencumbered period that was not at the end of one immense project and at the beginning of another. ”One is exercised by our inability to be happy; we have very unquiet minds. It is a dangerous game with actors. You can’t pretend when it suits you to be ‘in life’. Sometimes you just have to stop.”
It is this desire for inner stillness which attracts him to eastern religions. Towards the end of the interview, when he had loosened up considerably, Branagh talked about this inward journey. ”One of the wonderful things about those people, and I am not among them, who can meditate well, is their ability to achieve that sense of being absolutely nothing. To just ‘be’ and not to have your head full of ‘Oh God, I’m late’, ‘The gas man’s coming’, ‘Oh Christ, Somalia’.” He is particularly taken with one Buddhist tract: ”There’s this grand master, 100 years old, and he’s asked to sum it all up. ‘Just be cheerful’ is what he says. It sounds glib, on one level, but it’s also delicious. It’s the kind of thing that Shakespeare does all the time.”
Branagh’s obsession with D.H.Lawrence, rather than Hamlet, may yield more clues about what drives him. He started reading Lawrence’s letters in a moment of emotional crisis, and has been hooked on the man and his work ever since. ”There’s this character from a working-class background who went away into a different kind of world, and I felt a deep connection with that. It’s very romantic to someone like me, that he achieved a great position and accomplished so much, and that he came from Nottingham. I like the idea of him being on his own when he first came to London, and suddenly being on the edges of the whole Bloomsbury caboodle. He was so single-minded about what he wanted to do. I’ve even got a bunch of books that he and Jesse Chambers had back in the early 1900s in Nottingham. I have spent some considerable time touching his signature and thinking, ‘God, I wish I had met him.”’
Olivia Manning’s phrase about the Anglo-Irish sense of ”belonging nowhere” has a special significance for Branagh. The passage in his autobiography in which he describes his transformation from a cocky Belfast lad into a solitary teenager in the English suburbs is surprisingly affecting: his mother suffering from loneliness and a loss of confidence which took years to regain; the young Branagh, surrounded by fellow pupils whose older brothers were in the army, straining to mask his Irishness at school and then suffering from guilt at home. ”For as long as I could, I kept up the double life”, he writes, ”but my voice gradually took on the twang of suburbia. However, I still sounded different, and was very careful when the subject of English casualties in Ulster came up in school.” Between the age of 12 and 15, he coped with his predicament by retreating into himself. It was through acting, a legitimate method of reinvention, that Branagh discovered a way out.
Branagh seems to be at his happiest in a culture where actors are not made a fuss of. He fell in love with Australia when he spent several months there filming an adaptation of Lawrence’s The Boy in the Bush. He has used return visits in much the same way that other people go to health farms. He is similarly restored by trips to Ireland. The premieres of his three films have been in Belfast, and the Renaissance Theatre Company performs in Dublin and Belfast each year. He is recognised there, but not gaped at. ”There’s a different attitude. They’ll say ‘Hello’, or breaking into an accent ‘Very nice on the television there, ah Kevin, very good.’ In a pub in Ireland you can talk about a football match and you can talk about a poem. You can get very deep very quickly, in a way that you can’t quite over here,” he says. ”It has something to do with the unaffected knowledge and curiosity across the social classes and sexes which I like.”
Branagh’s conversation is littered with references to the way actors can get marginalised into a self-obsessed kind of ”luvvery”. Some of his best friends are actors, but he avoids the theatrical hoopla of first nights and the right restaurants. ”It’s very easy to get into a scene where your feet never touch the ground…Where you’re only ever having conversations with people who are looking over their shoulders to see if there’s anyone more interesting to talk to. Your vocabulary narrows into ‘How are you?’, ‘Good’, ‘Oh good’, ‘Lovely’, ‘It was marvellous’, ‘No, you were great’, ‘I was great’, ‘Let’s not talk about me. What did you think of my performance?’ So one tends not to do it.”
Branagh strikes me as thoroughly likable, and a good deal cuter and more larky than his bland image. He is so unpretentious, indeed almost gauche, that it is easy to forget how much he has accomplished for such a young man. At the end of the interview, a rather harassed stage manager knocks on our door for the second time. Hamlet is very definitely needed back in the rehearsal room. Branagh says: ”I’ll be right with you, darling.” And it doesn’t sound right at all.
22 Nov 1992 Administrator