Benet Brandreth: ‘Some would say being a barrister is a form of acting’
The son of former MP Gyles Brandreth has enjoyed a career encompassing law, writing and rhetoric. Gavin James Bower talks to him about his next challenge: starring in Hamlet with his wife and father
Shakespeare Institute director Michael Dobson was once asked if Hamlet was staged too often. There are good reasons why it was the most revived script in western drama for 400 years he responded, as it was “always a new play and frequently the best one around”.
Lawyer turned performer and rhetoric expert Benet Brandreth is the latest to play the Dane in a production that opened on August 30 at London’s Park Theatre.
He hopes audiences will be attracted by its unusual take: Hamlet as claustrophobic family drama. The casting of his famous father, known for comedy rather than tragedy, may also help draw crowds.
“Hopefully, among a million Hamlets – and a year in which there are four – we will have something unique and alternative to say,” Brandreth says.
There has indeed been no shortage of Hamlets this summer. Glyndebourne staged an operatic adaptation of the play it called “Shakespeare’s most famous and arguably greatest work”, which is preparing to go on tour.
Andrew Scott’s acclaimed turn as the Danish prince is in the final days of its West End run, while Tom Hiddleston is in rehearsals for Kenneth Branagh’s much anticipated staging at RADA.
For Brandreth, following those actors, as well as Benedict Cumberbatch, Paapa Essiedu, Maxine Peake, Rory Kinnear and Jude Law, to name just a few who have appeared on the British stage as the prince in the past decade, is “intimidating”.
‘Hamlet is an opportunity, in a slightly macabre way, to talk through issues of father loss with my own father in advance’
He says: “But at the same time, the reason so many great names have performed the part is because it is so wonderful and very generous to the actor.”
Brandreth, a former soldier with the Black Watch, is an intellectual property barrister by day who also writes novels and performs on radio and comedy nights.
He is an authority on Shakespeare and an expert in classical rhetoric. Not only that, he has twice been named World Public Speaking Champion. “All of it feeds into my performance,” he says.
Hamlet is his most ambitious stage outing to date. Previous forays include his show The Brandreth Papers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which transferred to London.
“I have done some professional comedy on radio and stage before – and some would say being a barrister is a form of acting,” he says.
The Park Theatre production of Hamlet may not have the star power of its fellows, but instead promises a “unique take” with a “unique cast”.
This production is Hamlet as kitchen-sink drama, or rather kitchen-table drama, around which all the action takes place. It seeks to bring out the “domesticity” of the work, Brandreth says.
This interpretation stays true to the early versions of the play, he continues. “Everyone being around a kitchen table brings out the idea of a conversational Shakespeare, but there’s an intimacy to this production that is there in the original.”
The added gimmick is that it’s a three-hander in which all three performers are from the same family.
And if his name sounds familiar, it is down to his father Gyles Brandreth, who will be the draw for many of those coming to see this unusual production.
‘This is a side of Gyles Brandreth that few, if any, will have seen before’
The former Conservative MP turned humourist, known for his appearances on BBC1’s The One Show, Radio 4’s Just a Minute and Countdown on Channel 4, is playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father as well as Claudius and Polonius.
Benet Brandreth says: “I think that the knowledge people have of my father as a public figure and of the fact that this is a real family playing those relationships will add an under-current of interest that informs and lifts our production,” before adding: “Certainly this is a side of Gyles Brandreth that few, if any, will have seen before.”
Brandreth senior is a self-proclaimed “Hamlet obsessive” who has revealed he saw Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation five times over one week in the 1950s.
He has previously performed Shakespeare at the Edinburgh Fringe, in a musical version of Twelfth Night in 2005.
Acting together in a play with such strong themes about sons and fathers, and the grief over the loss of a parent, was too good to pass up, Brandreth junior says.
“This is an opportunity, in a slightly macabre way, to talk through some of these issues of father loss with my own father in advance,” he says.
“I’m not going to pretend for one moment that sometimes it isn’t quite difficult, or icky, but then that’s been one of the fascinating things about this process.”
It was Gyles’ idea to do Hamlet. “My father had seen a production of Shakespeare with a small cast, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and thought it was rather brilliant and theatrical and wonderful,” Brandreth junior says.
“He then thought: ‘One of the plays I’d like to see done like that is Hamlet. Can we find someone to do it?’ ”
They brought Simon Evans on board to direct, whose London work includes A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Southwark Playhouse and the recent revival of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, starring Lenny Henry, at the Donmar Warehouse.
“He has that theatrical magic to take the words and set them in a frame that brings out the themes in a way that is very engaging,” Brandreth junior says. Evans is sharing directing duties with David Aula.
The third member of the cast is Benet Brandreth’s wife Kosha Engler, the Baltimore-born actor who has appeared as Lady Macbeth in a small production in Barnes, and will take on the roles of Gertrude, Ophelia and Horatio.
It was Engler’s friendship with Melli Marie, creative director of the Park, that decided the venue. “It’s the ideal theatre for us,” Brandreth says.
Q&A: Benet Brandreth
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a soldier in the Black Watch, Royal Highland Regiment.
What was your first professional acting job?
Aged eight, I played the new pupil in the film Madame Sousatzka. It was the pinnacle of my film career. I didn’t speak and was seen only in long shot.
What’s your next job?
A patent trial in the high court.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Money doesn’t matter as much as feeling there is meaning to what you do.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
I wouldn’t pretend to have any.
If you hadn’t been a barrister, writer and performer, what would you have been?
Stayed a soldier.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like to walk about the stage before the audience is let in.
If Brandreth is not a veteran of the stage, he is no stranger to working with theatres, including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Donmar Warehouse, on using rhetoric to approach characterisation.
It started in 2005 when Josie Rourke – now artistic director of the Donmar – brought him in to advise on a trial scene for a production at the RSC.
It quickly became apparent that his interest in rhetoric was more useful than his knowledge of legal procedure.
“At the time the voice department was keen to do more work on understanding of text with the actors and my rhetorical lens on language brought a different perspective and variety,” he says. “So I was asked back to work with other companies.”
This has ranged from the Donmar and Sheffield Theatres to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis.
It is an expertise he hopes will inform his portrayal of the Danish prince. “I hope that my awareness of the shape and nature of Hamlet’s arguments will make those arguments clear to the audience.”
The knowledge of rhetoric helped in another way: in cutting the running time of a play that can stretch to more than four hours to just 90 minutes.
“We had to think very carefully about every line, because we’ve got to choose which ones to get rid of,” he says. “Each line has to fight for its right to tell something about our production. If it doesn’t, then it has got to go.”
Ahead of taking on the role, Simon Russell Beale told him the part had unique challenges. It was “off-putting” for an actor, he said, when they can see the audience mouthing along to “To be or not to be”.
Yet Brandreth continues: “At the same time, you don’t really need to worry too much because Shakespeare has done all the work. Say the words and mean the words and everything else kind of follows from it.
“You’ve got the greatest playwright, his greatest play. You’re 90% of the way there. You can’t really go wrong.
“And if you do go wrong, it’s only 90 minutes,” he says, without needing to add that another production, with a new take, will be along soon.
CV: Benet Brandreth
Born: 1975, London
Training: Cambridge University
Landmark productions: The Brandreth Papers, Edinburgh Fringe (2011)
Awards: World Public Speaking Champion, 1996 and 2000
Agent: MMB Creative