Jazz Tangcay talks to Kenneth Branagh about playing Shakespeare, working with Ian McKellen and his plans for The West End Stage.
Kenneth Branagh is no stranger to adapting Shakespeare. He’s adapted Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost and As You Like It to name a few. In his latest film, Branagh takes on a different aspect of Shakespeare, playing the great bard himself. Teaming with Ben Elton, Branagh shows us the later stage of Shakespeare’s life after his beloved Globe Theatre burns down. I caught up with Branagh to talk about Shakespeare, shooting on digital, working with McKellen and whether he will return to the West End…
This is the first time you’ve shot in digital. What made you choose that format over film this time?
I’ve worked on digital as an actor, and I’ve watched really marvelous people work with it.
Anthony Dod Mantle is a great DP who won the Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. He was the first DP on our series Wallander about the Swedish detective. He worked on the red camera in digital then. He was so inventive and so imaginative with it and very painterly. It was a painter quality that I wanted in this picture. I knew that we had little time. In speaking to Zac Nicholson our cinematographer, I said to him that I wanted to work with natural daylight for the daytime material and to base our compositions and our color schemes on the work of Vermeer, and in the evening, I’d like to do Rembrandt and only use candlelight. I asked, ‘How can we achieve this?’ He said, ‘For the candlelight stuff, you’re probably going to have to go digital because it’s going to be easier to manipulate. It’s going to be a little kinder to the fluctuating light levels, and in post-production, it’s going to be a little more flexible. In terms of our really tight schedule, especially as I said that I wanted to do long, single takes – then the time issue of changing film, which is my preferred option was going to be reduced.’
The ability to keep going was also key.
So, it was two things; it was both photographic and also time sensitive.
Now that you’ve said it, those night scenes do look like a Rembrandt, what was it like working on and shooting them?
It was almost time-travel like. When I did the scene with McKellen, the cameras were at a sufficient distance and once those candles were on and no other light was there, you really couldn’t see them. Between being in a house of the period – we’re centuries back as we look around at the walls and the paintings and the furniture – everything was from then. In Stratford, in 1613, there would have been no ambient light pollution from some motorway a distance away. There would have been no ambient sound of a rumbling airplane. It’s the sound of natures and impossibly thick darkness. Once you even have that notion running through your head, opened your eyes and saw where you were, it really did feel transporting.
It created an unusual silence. There’s a line in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth:
I felt that light thickened as we did this and we entered this slightly trippy atmosphere of time-travel that slowed us down and made us talk in a different way. It felt responsive to that unique atmosphere and that, for me, had a magical impact on the film.
On the subject of Ian McKellen, talk about shooting that scene – it’s seven minutes long and so powerful.
We always shot with two cameras, and we always did the whole scene each time. The goal in cross shootings was that both performances were absolutely the same pitch. We knew the shots were the same size. We were doing our close-ups together, our mid-shots together, our wide shots together, so that every bit of an improvisational quality, whether it was a different word here or there or a different response would absolutely be caught at the same time. We were trying to arrange for capturing that bit of magic. I went to see Ian McKellen at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, and I went to see him when he was playing King Lear. I couldn’t believe he was giving me time to rehearse in the afternoon, but I was in his dressing room. We started doing the scene and he’s just so theatrically alive, it translates to his film work. He’s just ready for it to be different every time. In the way, performance changes from night to night. It changes because the mood is different, the audience is different, the company mood is different and the way the evening takes the actor. That’s what makes it special. He brings that quality to film. He doesn’t get locked into doing a line the same way or at the same pace. He’s infinitely varied. This became clear as soon as we started to read the scene and I decided we must shoot two cameras at once and we must get ready to capture that unexpected moment that he is open to.
He would have done all of his work ahead of time, which he did. It’s a seven-minute scene and it’s a lot of words that you can forget or stumble over or need prompting on. Never in his case.
It was like Judi Dench. You’re working with a level of a professional who is so ready to go that they’ll do all the mechanical stuff that gets them ready for the thing. They’re of course searching for that leap off into something magical, unexpected and unforgettable. That scene had some quality of that in Ben Elton’s writing because it’s just such a surprise that this unlikely last hurrah of a romance is happening under the very roof of a woman whose dignity was really assaulted by the rumors surrounding the publication of the sonnets and the idea that Shakespeare might have dedicated them to a man with whom he was in love with.
What was it like for you to play him and how you tapped into who he was?
It was interesting having spent so many years having worked on plays where you’re looking at the way he observed humanity. I think he was an amazing observer. I imagine because people knew him and described him as gentle and modest were partly describing someone who was able – at least conversationally or in a group to blend in so that he could listen to people from the highest echelons of society as well as the lowest. He was able to draw across all of those things. I think people trusted him, and he was able to see, therefore, their vulnerabilities and insecurities and I think when it came to playing him, I was interested to see those come out of him and that extended to, here was a man who wanted to buy a coat of arms. He spent twenty pounds to buy a coat of arms so that he might be called “Gentleman.” He’s very sensitive to his position. Unusually so. Surprisingly so. That vulnerability stuck me as an interesting and surprising thing to play. When you think, ‘But that’s what he wrote about in other people, why shouldn’t he have it in himself?’ It became illuminating.
In the same way, in that scene with McKellen, what you have is someone who wrote in many plays, but let’s say in Romeo and Juliet, he wrote characters who in some cases were experiencing unrequited love. He is there bearing his soul through poetry to a man with whom he might be in love and who is about to reject him, making Shakespeare, not this wise, sagacious man at the end of his life and constantly full of amazing insights. Instead, he’s a vulnerable, insecure, lovelorn individual who is still capable of being silly at 49 as anyone can be at 19 or 29. It was his vulnerability that I think I found fascinating to play.
OK, let’s go back. We all remember our first Shakespeare whether it was reading a play or seeing a play, what’s yours?
Mine was a trip to the St. George’s Theatre in Tuffnell Park in North London where amongst 1,000 kids watching a production of Romeo and Juliet, having previously been exposed to reading Shakespeare aloud in class and it being so boring, that it was the last place we wanted to be. It was like the Globe and open-air. The play began with a fight and once I saw sparks coming off those blades and this action of tumbling around and all this passion. There was this amazing girl playing Juliet; she walked on and you felt the hormonal crush inside that room with those 1000 kids. It was constant interjections with kids yelling, “Go on, give her kiss” and it was a vibrant, live experience. I think that was my conversion moment because the hairs on the back on my neck were going up. I knew that I liked it, but I didn’t really understand.
Talk about the entry point of going in where you did.
With Shakespeare, it’s always a mystery. The theater burns down in June 1613. They could have rebuilt it. They moved it across London in the past. But then the question of why does he return to Stratford, to a family that doesn’t treat him as the world-beating figure he is? Ben Elton has twins, three kids and he’s a very successful man and says, “they’re entirely indifferent to my success at the dinner table, I can tell you that.” So why go back and do that and face it? For us, it was bound up in the mystery of what had happened to his son? His 11-year-old son died. It’s recorded in the parish register at The Holy Trinity in Stratford, but the cause of death is not given. We know that this greatest writer of the age is married to this woman who could not read or write as was the case with his daughter Judith.
We wanted to put those things together. What did those previously voiceless women have to say when given a voice by Ben Elton about the impact of the death and the loss of a twin? It’s a theme in Shakespeare that is always recurring – the separation of twins. The problems between fathers and daughters. The loss of a child. It’s all there in the plays. We made our departure point that what if what he was writing about was coming straight out of his life?
You’re working on Death on The Nile next?
We’re shooting that in the summer and we’re working on Artemis Fowl for Disney. It’s the first in an eight-book series about this Irish criminal mastermind who may be discovering that the world of fairies exists below our very feet. We shot that last year, and we shoot Death on The Nile in late Summer.
It’s been a while since you were on the West End, would you like to tread the boards again?
I would. One of the things that prompted All IsTrue was the experience of doing a year’s work at the Garrick theater including A Winter’s Tale in which Judi appeared and also with Kathryn Wilder. I love the ritual of that. You have to get in there early. You’re disciplined about how you handle your health and all the habits of getting ready to give a good performance. I enjoy that very much. The experience of playing with Judi in that relationship of strong woman chastens weak man about his relationship to his son, very much lead to All Is True. They all get interlinked and for me. A ton of creative inspiration came from being back in the theater so after Death on The Nile, it’s very much my intention to get back on the stage.
All Is True opens today.