Kenneth Branagh and Lolita Chakrabarti discuss returning to the stage in The Browning Version
As the news of Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version being staged at Riverside Studios has been announced, we sit down with two of the stars involved to find out more.
The revival reunites Kenneth Branagh (also directing) and Lolita Chakrabarti (the pair have previously worked together on Hamlet in 2017, where Branagh directed Chakrabarti, while Branagh's company also produced Chakrabarti's Red Velvet in the West End half a decade ago) – acting opposite one another for the first time.
The play has been one Branagh's certainly been keen to stage for quite a while: "The Browning Version is something I've always admired – audiences and critics keep rediscovering and appreciating Rattigan, in a way he wasn't during his time. This play has been around my consciousness for a while."
Chakrabarti has, like so many others, heaps of praise to give to her director and co-star: "Ken has that brilliant quality that, as an actor, he will always give you notes to help facilitate you finding a character yourself rather than directing you into a position. He knows that you need the right notes to activate your own story."
Directing and starring – how does Branagh juggle wearing the two hats at the same time? "It's the relationship between perspiration and preparation – you always work harder when you work with really talented people around you. It makes you vulnerable to do both jobs simultaneously, but vulnerable is good – it can make for healthy acting if you can channel it."
Stepping into a role tackled by Michael Redgrave, Albert Finney, Peter Cushing and John Gielgud – how does Branagh feel he lines up? "You can't do things from the classical repertoire that aren't haunted by the ghosts of some of the greatest performers of the ages – it's a mug's game! But you get inspired by the fact that brilliant talents were drawn to these plays for a reason – they understood the qualities of these characters and the multiple layers of the writing. Like all great playwrights, Rattigan puts something great on the surface, but everything underneath still surprises you."
One of the essential parts of the process, according to Chakrabarti, is the necessity of casting young talent alongside award-winning dab hands: "Younger talent is the lifeblood of our industry – we always need to reinvent, with new blood providing new experiences. Age and youth need to play across the board. The different perspectives of different actors in the room will provide a hunger – it's lovely to work with that."
Branagh adds: "I'm lucky enough to have cast three recent graduates from RADA that I've been able to see in shows at RADA, and even auditioned some of them – others have come to work on various films, so already they're part of the extended creative family.
When we made Belfast (Branagh's newest film, with a cast including Judi Dench Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, recorded last autumn), half of the students who left RADA last year were in it – to get the practice in roles of varying sizes. Their excitement on set was so infectious. When youth and experience come together on a good piece of art, it's a dynamite combo."
Branagh also commends the "relative brevity" of the 70-minute piece, while Chakrabarti describes it as a "chocolate box": "You come, you eat, you leave".
But really, Chakrabarti just wants to be back in a theatre once more: "I was in the Wyndham's the other day for Life of Pi auditions, with the set of Leopoldstadt sat on stage covered in plastic. We're normally in there when it's full, and people are crackling with the excitement to be on. It made me long for it all again."
Tickets for The Brrowning Version go on sale on Monday morning.