Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare

This year The Queen’s Birthday Honours list has recognised a bumper crop of people in the arts. For me the most pleasing was the knighthood which has been awarded to Kenneth Branagh. His association with Shakespeare goes back to his teenage years, and he’s promoted Shakespeare’s works to young audiences through his many films.

I first saw him playing Henry V in 1984 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, on the second preview, standing at the back of the stalls. As the youngest-ever Henry V on that stage,  only 23, his performance could have been a bit rough around the edges. But not a bit of it.

Programme for the 1984 Henry V

Branagh’s precocious confidence and his energy in mastering that difficult stage and auditorium was extraordinary. I saw the production repeatedly that year, as well as Love’s Labour’s Lost (King of France), Hamlet  (Laertes) and, at the RSC’s studio theatre The Other Place, a new play called Golden Girls about a team of women athletes. His sprinter, was, I thought, the only unconvincing role he played. Although he had already been awarded Most Promising Newcomer, it was this season with the RSC that made him a star. He writes disparagingly of his performance in the other plays that season, but I remember them with great enjoyment. Was there anything he couldn’t do?

After his two-year stint Branagh went independent again. In 1986 he decided to put on and star in Romeo and Juliet. In order to work out what really worked onstage he came to the Shakespeare Centre Library in Stratford-upon-Avon where I worked and asked to see the prompt books for the last 40-years worth of RSC productions. I asked him why he was working on the play and he told me he was planning a production. After it, he capitalised on its success by creating the Renaissance Theatre Company and staging a trilogy of Shakespeares at Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s Studio: Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, to be directed by three distinguished actors: Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Geraldine McEwan.

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, RSC 1992-3

He directed a production of Twelfth Night casting Richard Briers as Malvolio, so successful that it was filmed for TV. He played Richard III. And he began his series of Shakespeare films: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It. He sent himself up in one of the Harry Potter films and wrote and directed a film which is a tribute to Hamlet, In the Bleak Midwinter. Here’s a link to a post about this film by Stuart Ian Burns.

In 1992-3 Branagh made a return to the RSC to perform as Hamlet, directed again by Adrian Noble, in a full-text version. By this time he was closely associated with the play, and had played the title role several times. A sellout on its London and Stratford showings, Branagh later filmed the play for the big screen.

When a very young man he was hailed as the new Olivier, which must have been an unhelpful comparison. Olivier’s best-known work was his film of Henry V, created as a piece of wartime propaganda, while the 1984 production, directed by Adrian Noble, was widely referred to as the first “post-Falklands” production. The play and subsequent film wanted to avoid the jingoism of the earlier version in favour of portraying the realities of war and kingship. Many people will remember the starkness of the execution of Henry’s one-time friend Bardolph, garotted onstage, his body left kneeling in front of the audience. As Henry watched, it felt as if he was saying a final goodbye to his youth as he accepted the necessities of being a king. And in the film of Henry V the long tracking shot through the battlefield after the end of the Battle of Agincourt testified to the inhumanity of war.  Here’s a link to a more rousing moment, the St Crispin’s Day speech. The association with Olivier lives on: in the recent film My Week With Marilyn Branagh plays Laurence Olivier.

In recent years he’s become much better known for other TV and film roles and for directing, but it’s his Shakespeare work which has had the most impact. In his autobiography Beginning, written before he was 30, he described how he felt about Henry V.
I have been able to produce exactly the film I wanted. It will not be to everyone’s taste, but for me it succeeds in realising what we set out to do… an indefinable element of commitment and heart shines through the picture. It is a popular, accessible and yet serious view of an underrated play.

There must be millions of people for whom watching this or one of his other films has been the spark for understanding and enjoying Shakespeare, and here’s hoping we’ll see more of this popularising agenda in years to come.

PS  have just received a Michael Coveney piece about Alan Howard and others, reminding me of Alan Howard’s brilliant Henry V 1975-7. Read his piece here.

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6 Responses to Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare

  1. George Allan says:

    Fantastic post Sylvie. It was my first experience of Shakespeare on stage, The Renascence Company at the Edinburgh festival, years ago. King Lear and A Midsommer Night’s Dream. What a way to start my Shakespeare Journey. I have all the films on DVD. Don’t want to ramble on, or this will turn into a post off it’s own! Thanks for a fantastic Tribute
    George

  2. Mairi Macdonald says:

    As you know Sylvia, I’ve been a fan since earliest times and lost count of the number of ‘Henry V’ performances I saw. As with all new ‘stars’ the press pendulum swung against him for a few years, but he stuck it out and continued to do what he’s passionate about, and superb at.
    Thanks too for reminding us about ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ which is one of my favourite films. I took a long time tracking down a video years ago and just hope I can get it on DVD. For lovers of Shakespeare and amateur actors it’s a masterclass.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      The DVD (and VHS tape too apparently) is available from Amazon, though only region 1 is available just now. Made more complicated by the fact that it was released in the US under the title “A Midwinter’s Tale”.

      • Sylvia Morris says:

        Thanks for reminding me of some more Branagh productions which I forgot to mention. He really has done an extraordinary amount of Shakespeare, mixed in with a huge variety of other work. I would like to see him get back to some Shakespeare onstage soon.

  3. Jo Wilding says:

    Great tribute to KB Sylvia. It’s lovely to see on the BBC clip how pleased he is with his knighthood. Sadly I never saw his Henry V on stage but I love the film – the scene of the execution of Richard Briers’ Bardolph is haunting, and, as you say the tracking shot after the battle is brilliantly appalling. It would be fantastic to see him back on stage doing Shakespeare. Of his non Shakespeare work I think Shackleton is a masterpiece.

  4. Lucy Beveridge says:

    I agree that KB, along with many others, has made some significant contributions to Shakespeare. What I don’t understand is why people have to make such a fuss about it. Surely quiet appreciation both says and is worth more?