Kenneth Branagh seems to have brought all his luck on himself. By age 28 he had adapted, directed and starred in the critically acclaimed new film version of Shakespeare's "Henry V" and negotiated the first American appearance of his Renaissance Theatre Company in their new productions of "King Lear" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," opening next Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum.
Those accomplishments may look brash for his years but, when prodded, the Irish-English actor-director-playwright quite calmly catalogues the stepping stones of his own yellow brick road. His secret is what he has called his "gift of certainty," a knowledge of where that road might lead him.
Branagh's teen-age years in Reading, England, where the only avenues out seemed to be British Rail, Prudential Insurance or the army, found him mesmerized by books, films and television and an unnamed desire for something other than "a normal job." A class play in high school unlocked the door to his future--and London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
"When I went to RADA," he says, "I was completely thrilled, and possessed, at the luxury to indulge my star-struck nature. It had suddenly appeared as a lifeline in a family that was completely unused to that kind of thing--no theatrical background, no film background."
While still at RADA he won prizes (most memorably for his Hamlet), jumped effortlessly into West End productions (Julian Mitchell's "Another Country") and television (D. H. Lawrence's "The Boy in the Bush," "The Fortunes of War"). He took over a small theater for a solo tour-de-force performance, and then played St. Francis in Mitchell's "Francis."
He also spent two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and had two of his own plays produced, most prominently "Public Enemy." Branagh describes it as "a piece about a long-term unemployed guy in Belfast who becomes obsessed with the movies of James Cagney and starts to borrow from them in his own life. It was partly about the political situation in Northern Ireland as perceived by the common person. And it was partly about the psychology of those people, what drives people to do that kind of thing. There's a certain kind of intensity about the Belfast situation, and also the power of the screen, of film, the influence of the media."
There were also films, such as Simon Grey's "A Month in the Country" with Colin Firth, and "High Season," a delightfully offbeat comedy with Jacqueline Bisset. And there was the formation of his Renaissance Theatre Company, of which "Henry V" is the seventh production. It was a crowded half-dozen years that put an exclamation point on his "gift of certainty."
"I'd trained 2 1/2 years at the Royal Academy, basically a classical acting training, if you like. But then I found that if you were offered work at all it was usually in film or television."
Branagh is still boggled by his decision to concentrate on theater, particularly Shakespeare. "That may indicate a good instinct on my part, or utter foolhardiness, a kind of dourly old-fashioned nature. It was just part of my makeup.
"When I left RADA," he says, "and ever since, really, there's been a sort of guilt-stroke sense of responsibility. Here are people asking me to do these things. I must go for it.
"It doesn't mean being ruthlessly careerist. I think some people find me rather bland when they meet me, actors particularly, because I entered as an enthusiast and have remained an enthusiast. And that's what kept me going. Whenever I hit my head against a brick wall artistically, it almost makes me want to do something bolder next time around. The great thing is, it shocks me sometimes.
"Anybody who has put themselves into that kind of exposed position will be aware of the fear factor. And so the continuing overcoming of the fear factor is an extraordinary thing. I don't know if there is really something that attracts me to those situations where you either have to sink or swim, where you have to call on real naked courage. But the thing that goes hand in hand with it, for me, all the time, is black, black despair.
"Week five of the rehearsal process, I just sit in front of the telly on Sunday, weeping at the thought of having to do another week, and yet the next day going in and being very big. It's not a question of what people are going to think, it's what am I going to think? That's why I despair."
Branagh's easy manner and winning way belie his "black" spells. And so do the results of his work, particularly with his own company.
"I've been very fascinated working with this company because they're a very strong company of actors. It's a young company. I'm thinking in terms of future work, marking out those film actors who do stage regularly, those who come from a theater background. There are also some very fine American film actors and actresses I would like to work with. I'm hoping with a foot in each camp--movies and theater--to try and create a climate in some wee way where people are not deemed to be eccentric or box-office death in movies if they have to do a play every couple of months.
"We're planning for theatrical ventures down the line," he continues, with his constant certainty, "and trying to keep the same kind of group of people together. And over here we'll be looking to meet some Americans to be part of that as well. Gordon (Davidson, the Taper's artistic director) and I are in deep discussion about the next stage, which will be an American stage, where we can start building the American ensemble he wants."
Branagh leans back, smiling. "People have said to me, 'Why don't you do political theater?' Well, 'Henry V' is one of the most political plays ever written. The problem with Shakespeare is you can't tell his politics. There's a great subversive element in 'Henry V' which we chose to bring out, which is very contradictory and paradoxical.
"People have made all sorts of claims for Shakespeare, haven't they? Shakespeare the Marxist, Shakespeare the Conservative, Shakespeare the Liberal Democrat. I think he's Shakespeare the Humanitarian, the Humanist, the realistic person of the world.
"Many of his plays, 'Henry V' in particular, are a political debate inside an adventure story. So you watch one and you'll get the other; things suggestive of other worlds, other experiences, touching deep emotions whilst appealing to you on a level which has absolutely to do with the here and now. And that's why some political theater is polemical and essentially non-dramatic, because it attempts to preach to converted folk, or it assaults people with a kind of bludgeoning approach."
And the current repertory at the Taper?
" 'Midsummer Night's Dream' is very political, if you like, about the relationships between men and women, which is about the most important subject still, hundreds of years on. It's a tremendously important subject. And the dream is very, very provocative and alive with all that. But political, no question. But also you will laugh a lot, and it's very moving.
"And I think 'Lear' is most profoundly important and contemporary. 'Lear' is a tremendously potent political reflection of the age. There is a tremendous ruthlessness about Lear. We've tried to present a society which is ruthless and acquisitive, and every man for himself, survival of the fittest, very much the spirit of the age in England at the moment.
"I don't know if there are American parallels, but in England Mrs. Thatcher's reign is on the wane, I think. And it's not because she's ancient, but in terms of her political life. There are a lot of suggestions that she's not as sharp as she was. This is one of Lear's tragedies, that he wants to give everything up and still be king. And one of the things that happens once he gives it up, is instantly he's a kind of joke, a bit like Reagan. Instantly he's useless, completely redundant.
"It's a tremendously invigorating experience but it's so real, an astonishing play. 'Lear' is like this extraordinary mountain hovering over you."
That "mountain" and that "dream" will be making Branagh's political statements at the Taper, with his accustomed certainty that "I feel more prepared for these plays than I've felt about anything in a long time."
Kenneth Branagh is prepared. And he's no longer 28. With a disarming smile that barely conceals the "full stop" seriousness behind, he admits proudly, "I've hit the big two-nine."