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As You Like It… Kenneth Branagh… and Shakespeare…

By Nicolas Soames

1 October 2007

Kenneth Branagh’s deep commitment to Shakespeare continues. Though equally prolific as actor and director, he almost always has a film Shakespeare project on the go (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost so far) – and when he hasn’t, he is itching to get something going, however small. Thus I got a phone call one morning, out of the blue, from his agent to say that ‘Ken’ had a free three days in two weeks’ time and would we like to record King Richard III?

‘Yes,’ I said. And within an hour I had booked studio, director (David Timson) and within three hours, most of the cast. Frenetic wasn’t the word for it.

But that’s what it is like around Branagh (people who work with him call him Ken, but if I do that here I will be regarded as a terrible poseur…so – I mean Ken, but chose Branagh). Doors open and things happen. I always wondered why that call came out of the blue. It was partly because, apparently, he had a conversation with Michael Sheen who kindly recommended us – as a company who can get things going. Then again, it probably wasn’t unconnected with the fact that Branagh wanted to make a come-back to the stage after 10 years, and eventually chose the role of Richard III (!) at the Sheffield Crucible. I saw it, of course, (directed by Michael Grandage, who took over the Donmar Theatre shortly afterwards) and I experienced my most chilling moment in theatre in all my life.

‘I am not in the giving mood today,’ says Richard III. I happened to be looking closely at Ken himself onstage at that very moment, and, I tell you, despite thirty years on the judo mat, I have rarely experienced such outright fear. Terrifying. And he wasn’t even saying it to me.

Anyway – this isn’t about terror but outright romance and love. The other day, I went (with David T and wives) to the first showing of Branagh’s new film of As You Like It. (It has been hanging around for more than a year waiting for a UK release by capricious distributors!). I exhort you to see it. It is set in Japan (slightly oddly, I have to say – and with varying effect, as the Forest of Arden, when we get to it, looks undeniably English to the roots!); and one of my former judo teachers, Syd Hoare 8th Dan who is also a sumo expert turns up as a sumo referee. How bizarre is the world!

BUT – the reason I recommend it is that the love scenes between Orlando (David Oyelowo) and Rosalind (Bryce Dallas Howard) are truly magical. As You Like It was acted with love and passion, and directed with the same emotions. It is so easy for a) filmed Shakespeare to go through the motions and b) for a director who has been doing Shakespeare films for years to pay lipservice to The Bard. But not in the hands of Branagh. Here is joyful, youthful passion and wonderment writ large on screen.

The cast is generally extremely fine. Kevin Kline is a thoughtful charismatic Jaques, Alfred Molina and Janet McTeer fizz as the comic pair Touchstone and Audrey. And Adrian Lester and Romola Garai duet as the other lovers, Oliver and Celia.

And Brian Blessed gives his best performance for years as both Dukes.

After the film showing, there was a question and answer with Branagh, Adrian Lester (a highly accomplished speaker we discovered) and Big Brian Blessed. Lots of interesting interaction with the audience, one of whom asked the interesting question why there were so many twins in the comedies – what was Shakespeare saying about families?

Of course, all three panelists were saying very nice things about each other…but we had a good glimpse of reality at the end. Big Brian, who didn’t need a microphone and just roared out his comments in the larger than life way at the Curzon Cinema, Mayfair, said what a sensitive director Ken was, and how well he knew Shakespeare and actors and filmmaking etc etc…But there came a point when the worm turned.

Branagh had asked Blessed to bring his acting down for the camera, and be aware how close the audience was in cinematic terms  – in such a different way to the stage. On Blessed’s own admission he wasn’t doing what was asked. Branagh put it a different way, and then tried again a few minutes later on a different tack.

‘Finally’, remembered Blessed, ‘he just yelled at me:


The penny dropped. And Brian was truly mesmeric.

And that is the way, sometimes, art happens.

Nicolas Soames

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