Kenneth Branagh: 'We want to earn our place in the West End'

The actor/director and his associates Rob Ashford and Christopher Oram on their ambitious year-long season at the Garrick Theatre

'Playing Shakespeare with a degree of naturalism and reality, that's what we aspire to' - Kenneth Branagh
'Playing Shakespeare with a degree of naturalism and reality, that's what we aspire to' – Kenneth Branagh
© Johan Persson

What was the genesis of Plays at the Garrick?
Kenneth Branagh: I wanted to find a theatre where we could land with collaborators I loved and trusted and work on a programme of plays that were long-standing passions. Christopher and I worked together 15 years ago on Richard III in Sheffield, and Rob and I worked a couple of years ago on the Scottish play – so the conversations have been ongoing.

I felt as though a moment was approaching whereby some of this work could come together. Rob brought up the idea of doing The Entertainer, and it prompted thoughts about a season. Finally, Nica Burns, who I worked with at the Donmar, talked about this playhouse [Garrick] where we could do both the intimate and the epic stuff, and it suddenly became possible.

How long has The Winter's Tale been on your radar?
KB: It's been on my radar since I was 17 or 18 and I saw it for the first time. I was transported and enchanted. It had a profound impact on me then, and across the years of watching and reading it. Like so many people I felt an intuitive response to the play. When we started talking about it, it took us a long time to find a way to it – it's work that cannot be rushed. But the thing that made it possible was something called Judi Dench. With Judi prepared to come back to a play in which she starred in Trevor Nunn's famous production, and to have the privilege of playing opposite her, that was very exciting.

Did Judi Dench take much persuading?
KB: She's still unbelievably passionate about what she does. And when we spoke about this I could see the fire in her – she knows this play so well, and has heard it so much. It's such a privilege to be in the room with someone who has the knowledge of the play that she does. But as with all the greats, it was like sitting opposite a 21 year-old who'd just got her first part. We'll all have to rush to keep up with her. It's a thrill for me that all our scenes are together. For me and her to be in this play on the West End stage, that's a life experience I feel very honoured to have.

Can you give us any clues about the production – including the infamous bear?
Rob Ashford: It's a tale first and foremost, The Winter's Tale, and that's a great way to think about it. That's the 'in'.

KB: We've already come up with five dozen ways to do "exit pursued by bear" – we have a number of ways we might be approaching that. It's often labelled a problem play because it rests too much on magic, but I'd say that's one of its strengths.

It runs in rep with Rattigan's Harlequinade, which is very rarely produced – why?
KB: It hasn't been produced very often because it's got such a large cast. It was done beautifully at the National Theatre 35 years ago with Alec McCowen and Geraldine McEwan and Nicky Henson. It's just wonderful. Although some would say it's a soufflé, or a vaudeville, as always with Rattigan he can't help but go deeper. It partly concerns the forerunner of the Arts Council, the CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), which is a notion that's alive and well and fighting the good fight out in the world today. He was well aware of that dynamic between the world of culture and the harsh world of economic reality. He paints a beautiful and very touching picture of it.

Is there an over-arching theme to the season?
KB: I think there's an interest in performance, and in how performance and the theatre can be a metaphor for the melodrama that can be the rest of our lives. That's directly explored in Harlequinade and The Entertainer. Also issues of reality and illusion – what is real and what is not, and whether playacting can help us see our problems in a different way. The Painkiller is a great example of that.

Christopher Oram: My experience is that it's only when you get to the end of a season you spot the themes that run through the productions. People will say to you 'I like the way these themes recurred', and you say 'yes, yes' like it was planned from the beginning, when it wasn't.

I'm assuming that Romeo and Juliet will not be a Disney-fied interpretation, even though it features your Cinderella stars
KB: It's not going to look like Cinderella. It's exciting to bring those two back together on stage, they both have significant experience in the classics – Richard has been in Romeo and Juliet previously [for the Globe], while Lily was in Othello in Sheffield. They're both wildly excited to do this, and it's a good time to catch a couple of careers at times when they've earned the right to do it and are hungry to do it.

Will it be similarly raw to your Macbeth in Manchester?
KB: Sex and passion is clearly a driving force in Romeo and Juliet, as it is in the Scottish play. In this intimate playhouse of 700 we can see the whites of the audience's eyes and we want to take advantage of that. Playing Shakespeare with a degree of naturalism and reality, that's what we aspire to.

And rounding off the season is The Entertainer, which has been associated with many great actors stretching back to Olivier
KB: It's an amazing part in an amazing play. And I was particularly fascinated by Rob coming to it as an American.

RA: I liked the play and read the play even before I started working over here. I had a completely different view on it to many people. It's so much deeper than I imagined it. When we were in the trailer in Manchester, with mud everywhere, I suggested it to Ken because I was keen to get something else started with him.

Is Olivier's association with the role significant to you?
KB: Olivier is only an inspiration – it's impossible to measure yourself against such people. An inherent requirement of the theatre is that it's about now, and not about trying to compete with a great performance of the past. The part is phenomenally intimidating, partly because it's so well written. That's the great challenge.

It's interesting that you're featuring Rattigan and Osborne in the same season
KB: To bring a rarely-done Rattigan back into play, and at the same time be bringing Osborne to the fore at a time when he seems to be suffering the same fate that Rattigan once suffered, is very exciting. Osborne's writing on the page is still like a hand grenade going off. There are some savage parts to The Entertainer.

RA: In The Entertainer the world is changing so fast [around Archie Rice], and he's struggling to keep up with that. That certainly resonates at a time of extremely fast change, when things are becoming obsolete before they're even complete.

Tickets start at £15 – how important is it to make West End theatre accessible to a broad audience?
KB: I think the West End is in a very energised and vital place. It seems to be very lively. I started my stage acting career in the West End, in Another Country, and our first season with the Renaissance Company was produced with [ATG founder] Howard Panter. When this kind of programme is embraced by someone like Nica [Burns], and they get the idea that Romeo and Juliet may bring a whole new audience in, it's great to be able to say that over ten percent of the tickets are £15, and that whatever price you see on the ticket is what you'll pay. You're still living in a commercial reality, but it's important to declare that that's possible.

Is it true that your production of Macbeth is coming to London?
KB: We've been patiently trying to put together an ambitious remount of Macbeth. It won't feature as part of the season here, but we remain hopeful that it can be done and that the conversations are happening.

Will there be more seasons after this one?
KB: We hope so. The public will decide. My view is that we have to earn our right to be here in the West End – we have to do good work. No doubt we'll make a ton of mistakes but we hope it's exciting and that we can earn our place to be here. I hope there will be future seasons. I'd love to be part of presenting new plays, for instance, and there are all sorts of other developments that could be possible. But one step at a time; this is a very exciting way to begin.