I looked at the title of this post and thought “That sounds a bit odd.” It wouldn’t seem odd if it had been a musician or an author – I’ve written “How I Got Into….” posts on both, and there will be more to come. But an actor/director? Seems odd.
But Sir Kenneth is one of the great geniuses of English theatre, and now a successful Hollywood film director, and the master of communicating Shakespeare to the people – it’s him and Mark Rylance, then everyone else trailing in the dust.
I narrowly missed out on my first chance to see Kenneth Branagh act. In 1984 my wife and I decided on a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see the RSC. It was probably more my idea – she’s not a Shakespeare fan, and fell asleep watching another great Shakespearean actor, Alan Howard, playing Richard II in Newcastle (it was warm and dark) – but having decided to do the culture thing, we had to choose what to see. It was either Much Ado About Nothing (comedy) starring Derek Jacobi, who was now massively famous on the back of the BBC’s production of I Claudius, or a production of Henry V (history) featuring some newcomer we’d never heard of. So we went for the famous one, and missed out on one of the great star-making performances as Kenneth Branagh (for it was he) stormed the stage at Stratford for the first time as Henry. If only we’d gone for that (though Derek Jacobi was rather good, and we did enjoy Much Ado).
So getting into Kenneth Branagh had to wait until 1989 and his film version of Henry V (he’d done some TV stuff in the UK, some of which was very well-received, but I’d managed to miss it all). Henry V got a one-night-only showing at our local multiplex and I persuaded my wife to come along. At the end, my wife (who doesn’t like Shakespeare, remember) said “That was brilliant!” Branagh the actor had brought out the drama, the excitement and the charm and wit of Shakespeare’s Henry; Branagh the writer had crafted a credible narrative, cutting the text carefully – including axing what Branagh accurately called the “resoundingly unfunny leek scene” between Fluellen and Pistol – and even transplanting one of Falstaff’s speeches from Henry IV Part 2; and Branagh the director (on his debut) had paced the movie nicely, balancing the quiet and contemplative scenes with the action, daring a 4 minute long, unbroken tracking shot over the post-battle field of Agincourt, and finishing the film with a genuinely funny and romantic “Wooing of Katherine” scene with then-wife Emma Thompson.
It was so good we went to see it again. And again. And again. We travelled all over the Midlands to catch showings. In all I saw it 12 times, my wife 13 (she went once with a friend, who also clocked up 12 viewings with us) – of course, we had no children in those days. It became almost an obsession. We bought the soundtrack album (an excellent score by Patrick Doyle) and played it on the car stereo on holiday in France, parked next to the battlefield at Agincourt (the 600th anniversary of the battle was a few days ago, on October 25th).
I’ve seen most of Kenneth Branagh’s film output since, and he’s now established as a major Hollywood director with films like Thor and the recent live-action Cinderella.
But it’s been the Shakespeare films and the times I’ve been fortunate to see him on stage that have stood out for me. I don’t know another actor (except possibly Mark Rylance) who makes Shakespeare’s words seem so natural: take a look at the clips in the links below, particularly the Wooing of Katherine, to see what I mean. For me, Branagh is the antidote for people who say Shakespeare’s “too hard” – maybe it’s the way it’s taught (a subject I might come back to one day) or the way it’s often performed. With a genius like Kenneth Branagh, the supposed impenetrability drops away and the meaning comes through.
Yes, I’m a fan.
Here are some links to three contrasting clips from Henry V (though I do encourage anyone to watch the complete film).
The Traitors – Having discovered a murder plot before sailing for France, Henry toys with the three traitors before delivering their warrants, then unleashes his anger and sense of betrayal on his treacherous close friend.
St Crispin’s Day – one of Shakepeare’s most famous speeches, delivered with rousing enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t follow Henry into battle after this? “We few. We happy few. We band of brothers….” Certainly Lord Essex (Brain Blessed) would – look how up for the fight he is. The boy to the left at 2:26 is a very young Christian Bale. This also provides a terrific example of Patrick Doyle’s score.
The Wooing of Katherine (with apologies for the unnecessary subtitles in this clip) – after victory at Agincourt Henry secures the French crown with a treaty and by marrying the King of France’s daughter (played by Branagh’s then-wife Emma Thompson). But first he wants to win her heart, and pursues her through this most romantic of scenes. I love the way Henry works his way through formality, confusion, the business-like “clap hands on a bargain”, trying to find the right approach until Katherine begins to respond to his charm. See how naturally Branagh delivers the language as if he speaks it every day. Nice background acting too from Geraldine McEwan as the Lady-In-Waiting. Follow the link at the end to Part 2 for the beautifully delivered “You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate”, followed by a hilarious payoff line to get to the entry of the court. If you run to the end of Part 2 there’s Derek Jacobi as the Chorus delivering the final lines of the film.
And there’s a chance to see Branagh doing Shakespeare on 26th November when The Winter’s Tale is broadcast live to cinemas around the world, featuring Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench.