If you like watching films of Shakespeare plays, you’ve certainly come across Kenneth Branagh. His “Henry V”, “Much Ado”, and “Hamlet” were all very popular, star-studded films, and now he is appearing in NY for the first time on stage. This week’s news is full of reviews of that performance, and a lovely piece from Samantha Bond telling about playing Juliet to his Romeo back in 1986. What I find most interesting in these articles is the discussion of Branagh’s style in speaking Shakespeare’s language.
The New York Times refers to Branagh’s familiarity with Shakespeare as “a lifetime steeped in the material.” And his delivery? “a gift for speaking 400-year-old poetry as perfect naturalistic prose.” An interesting commentary. Is “perfectly naturalistic” what we go for when we go to see Shakespeare? Or are we looking for (listening for) something spectacular? Perhaps those seeking the spectacular should stick with Branagh after all. In a review from The Guardian we hear that “the text, seemingly edited with a halberd, is not really the focus. Rather, it’s the cinematic stage pictures and the filmic score, the pouring rain and the open flame, the floating dagger and the flying witches.” It’s a trend seen more and more with his films as well. Even his “Hamlet”, which impressively kept every word, the musical underscoring was so present that it seemed that your emotions were picked out for you in advance. I remember watching Branagh’s Hamlet once with a friend and I was a little shocked to have her interrupt his start to the “special providence” speech by saying, “at this point in the movie we know: shimmery strings music means a tender sensitive bit is coming up!” It surprised me, but it made sense. And according to the Guardian, this current production of “Macbeth” “is enthralling, eerie, and very likely a case of style over substance. But what style!”
The comments on that review were much more mixed. Some argued it contained equal parts style and substance, and several people said it was the best theatrical experience of their lives. Branagh certainly has had his head in the play for a long time, as the NY Times article tells the endearing story of him happening upon his older brother’s copy of Macbeth, and how that pulled him into Shakespeare. He still has the old paperback copy, even used it to learn his lines. Another article this week tells of Branagh in his younger days, Samantha Bond who played Juliet to his Romeo when they were both in their early twenties. She writes of blushing over kisses, but especially of versework, “Ken is brilliant at enlivening verse but if we needed any help with the language, Hugh [Cruttwell] was there in rehearsals.” She went on to say that when people cannot understand Shakespeare spoken in performance, “It’s usually when the actors don’t understand either.” Branagh’s Hamlet should have no worries on that front.