The actors have dispersed in the rehearsal room where Kenneth Branagh and Michael Grandage are plotting their assault on the West End. Some water bottles and coffee cups are strewn about. The late summer sun is streaming through the windows after a showery afternoon. And some pictures of a Russian countryside retreat are pinned to the wall.
Grandage, as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, is launching a Donmar West End season with Branagh as his artistic associate – and as the lead character in Chekhov’s Ivanov, in a new version by Tom Stoppard, which proclaims the season at Wyndham’s Theatre this month. Derek Jacobi follows as Malvolio in Twelfth Night in December, Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike in Yukio Mishima’s Madame de Sade next March (both directed by Grandage), then Branagh directs Jude Law as Hamlet in June 2009.
Such is the anticipatory excitement, Branagh reveals, that a woman he knows bought tickets for all four shows and turned up for the first of them last June, just about one year early for the new Hamlet. The top-price ticket will be £32.50 and there will be many good seats for sale at £10.
This is a significant moment in both men’s careers, especially Branagh’s. The golden boy of the 1980s who formed his own theatre and film companies after a sensational West End debut as a schoolboy Marxist in Julian Mitchell’s Another Country – prowling the stage as if he’d been born there – and then a blistering Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company – was saddled both with a “new Olivier” tag and a reputation for “making things happen”.
His precocious trajectory was charted in his autobiography, Beginnings, in 1989. He had made the film of Henry V, the first of his popular Shakespeare series, settled down with Emma Thompson, his first wife, played Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger (directed by Dench) on both stage and television and was about to launch the second phase of his career in both British movies and in Hollywood.
A third period was possibly signalled with his most recent stage performances, an energetically tortured Richard III, directed by Grandage, in Sheffield in 2002 and, a year later, a remarkable walk on the wild side in David Mamet’s Edmond at the National, for which he won a Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Actor. He’s now 47, still busy in film and television, but does he have a new game plan?
“I tend to think short-to-mid-term these days,” he admits. After his marriage to Emma Thompson, and relationship with Helena Bonham-Carter initiated on his ill-fated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein movie, he is happily, and quietly, married to the art director Lindsay Brunnock, whom he met while filming Shackleton for the BBC a few years ago. “For some time now I’ve been getting more excited again about the theatre. I was always frustrated by the accessibility factor. It was no accident I did Richard III at Sheffield, where people could get in, and Edmond as part of the National’s £10 Travelex season.
“But I never really had a master plan beyond wanting to do good work. You look back, and then you see a cycle of seven years with my Renaissance Theatre Company, or another ten making the Shakespeare films. There was an organic integrity that followed on from passion and youth.
“It’s all about energy and opportunity – I feel as strongly bound now to what Michael is doing as I was to anything back then. And I feel happily liberated from the pressure of feeling I have to forge ahead, or be a flag-bearer for something.”
What has made Branagh exceptional in his generation – apart from his acting talent – is the ability to act as a creative catalyst between various factions, so he can effortlessly cross between the world of his old friends John Sessions and Stephen Fry, the new vaudevillian brilliance of the Right Size duo – he directed their hilarious The Play What I Wrote and the unfortunately underrated Ducktastic! for producer David Pugh – and the classicist traditions of Gielgud, Dench and Jacobi, which also emerged in his Shakespeare films, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing (gloriously photographed around a Tuscan villa) and Hamlet.
Other film credits straddle the slightly “Ken at home with his pals” world of Peter’s Friends; the leading role of an innocent abroad in hype and schlock in Woody Allen’s Celebrity; a tight-lipped government agent in Philip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence; the outrageous Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film and; as director, last year’s new screen versions of The Magic Flute and Sleuth, starring Law and Michael Caine and scripted by Harold Pinter.
Grandage acknowledges Branagh’s energising role in this new Donmar West End season. “Not only have we talked about Ivanov now for several years. He also brought Jude to the table and rang me up and told me to read i>Madame de Sade. An artistic director’s job is often lonely, but it really makes a difference when you have certain key individuals in your life, who are friends. Ken is a bottomless source of brilliant ideas and suggestions. We are so lucky to have him back in the West End.”
There does seem to be a chemistry between Branagh revisiting Hamlet as a director and now acting in the Chekhov. He won the Bancroft Gold Medal at RADA for playing Hamlet. After his West End debut in Another Country, he played Laertes to Roger Rees’ prince at the RSC in 1984, then re-occupied the title role with his Renaissance company in 1988 (directed by Jacobi) and again with the RSC in 1992 – and then there was his entertaining, ever-so-long 1996 film of Hamlet (in which he was dyed blonde, like Olivier, and Ken Dodd played Yorick). A film he wrote and directed about a group of actors putting on Hamlet in a dilapidated village church, In the Bleak Midwinter, continued his love affair with the play – he quotes Gielgud’s phrase that it sums up “the whole process of living” – now resumed in the frequent Hamlet references in the role of Ivanov and his directing of Law (“he has a great gift for the verse, and he will look fantastic”) next year.
The Wyndham’s season also marks the start of Grandage’s second five-year stint and he rather evades my suggestion that he might succeed Nicholas Hytner, with whom he worked closely as an actor at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and who remains a close friend, at the National. “I’ve had this job since 2002 and it’s not finished yet.” Isn’t he bursting at the seams in the little Donmar, and wasn’t Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly the first sign that he was restless to break out?
“Not really. I am absolutely focussed on the special quality of the work we do in Earlham Street, but our educational programmes, our touring and now this Wyndham’s season are all part of securing and deepening that quality of work. It’s the flipside of having only 250 seats to sell. My credo is in having good writers and great plays in actor-led productions with directors putting them on as well as possible.” And yes, there are plans to bring his sold-out hit production of The Chalk Garden – one of the shows of the year so far – into the West End, while the current Donmar hit, Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Piaf led by Elena Roger, has already announced its move to the Vaudeville.
Wembley or bust
You might not think that Branagh – who is an avid Tottenham Hotspur supporter – and Grandage would have football in common. But when he ran the Sheffield Theatres between 1999 and 2005, Grandage visited Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday, and spotted why the team was doing so badly: the players never looked at each other as they approached the six-yard box. Having made his point about the psychology of teamwork in a stern after-match conference, Grandage invited the coach to his rehearsals for The Tempest: “It can’t have helped much, because the team still plummeted inexorably towards the foot of the league table!”
Branagh’s soccer connection is more romantic. When he was a boy in Belfast (he moved with his family – his father was a carpenter – to Reading, aged nine) he chose Spurs as his favourite team, along with Rangers in Scotland and Linfield in Northern Ireland. Danny Blanchflower, the great captain of the 1961 double-winning Spurs side, remains a hero, as does the legendary Irish goalkeeper of the 1970s, Pat Jennings, who still works for Spurs on match days in the hospitality suites.
“The one actor I could barely speak to when I was in the same room was John Gielgud. The same with Scofield. The rest of them, you can get over it when you start working. But Pat Jennings? Never! This was a man who could catch a football in one hand... and play for chief north London rivals Arsenal without losing the everlasting affection of all Spurs fans.”
As I slip away towards the witching hour of another first night on the other side of town, Branagh is still bending Grandage’s ear – not on playing Chekhov, but on the magic of last season’s Carling Cup Final victory over Chelsea at Wembley, and the theatrical properties of the new stadium. Wembley seats almost 90,000 spectators. I sense Grandage’s ears pricking up in sudden unfeigned interest: after the Donmar, the Sheffield Crucible and Wyndham’s in the West End... if not the world, why not Wembley Stadium?
Ivanov opens on 17 September 2008 (previews from 12 September) at Wyndham’s Theatre, where it runs until 29 November. The Donmar West End season continues with Twelfth Night (5 December 2008 to 7 March 2009), Madame de Sade (13 March to 23 May 2009) and Hamlet (29 May to 22 August 2009). A version of this article appears in the current September issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!
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