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Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet: ‘Tom Hiddleston is a natural at Shakespeare – we have a genuine rapport’

Tom HIddleston and Kenneth Branagh at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Photo: Dave Benett Tom HIddleston and Kenneth Branagh at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Photo: Dave Benett

Having played the lead many times in his career, Kenneth Branagh is directing a production of Hamlet with one of the UK’s biggest stars. He tells Nick Clark how a plan seven years in the making is coming to fruition at RADA

Kenneth Branagh is not given to rose-tinted reminiscences. The man who has claim to being Britain’s greatest living actor-director has built up an extraordinary body of work on stage and screen by looking relentlessly forwards. Sitting in a rehearsal room at RADA on Chenies Street in London, however, he is finding it hard not to be a little misty-eyed.

“I’m not someone who gets particularly nostalgic, but there is definitely a moment in your life where you look back with a different clarity,” he says. “This is one such moment, and doing Hamlet here feels like coming full circle.”

Branagh is back working where it all began more than three decades ago with a new production of Hamlet, the play he headlined in his final year at RADA in October 1981.

“RADA gave me confidence, support and creative freedom,” he says. “I had a fantastic time here. It was a positively intense experience, which taught and continues to teach me many things.”

One of the lessons he still treasures from that time was learning the discipline actors need to take on “the responsibility of playing a great classical role”.

It was at RADA that he discovered a love for Hamlet, “the helter-skelter of the part from the inside out – bumpily, humbly – but with exhilaration”. That and The Stage helped kick-start Branagh’s career: “I got my first job through The Stage, so I have enormous fondness for it.”

Branagh has returned to Hamlet again and again. He memorably played the Dane in 1988, when he was 27, under Derek Jacobi’s direction for the Renaissance Theatre Company.

Four years later, he starred in Adrian Noble’s staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company and then he adapted it himself for the big screen in 1996, taking the title role.

Branagh, who has been RADA president since 2015, returns to the play with a production starring Tom Hiddleston, a fellow graduate of the drama school. It is likely to be one of the most sought-after theatre tickets of the year.

Hamlet opens on September 1 at RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre and runs for three weeks with tickets available only via a ballot – even critics will have to apply. The capacity is 160. It is part of a fundraising drive for the drama school, which is seeking £20 million to completely overhaul the premises we are sitting in.

The refurbished premises will provide the first on-site accommodation for students; there will also be a new library and enhanced archive. The space currently known as the Drill Hall will become a 250-seat public theatre, which will be named the Richard Attenborough Theatre.

We meet at the end of a day of rehearsals. Branagh is a little dishevelled, maybe a touch tired from a day at the coalface, but the twinkle is never far away.

Cinema audiences can currently see him in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and he has been working on a big screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. But the man who once said “my bones are in the theatre” is clearly revelling in returning to theatre work. “My natural creative home is in the rehearsal room,” he says. “It seems as familiar and automatic to me as breathing.”

Discussing the ideas behind his latest production, Branagh becomes increasingly animated, giving a hint into the creative force that shapes his productions. “Hamlet always speaks loudly to the world,” he says, eyes sparkling. “And at present, it roars. It is a play that talks of power grabs and demagogues.”

The enthusiasm is infectious, and his passion for the text shines through every sentence. “It is about people rising up, speaking out and demanding the right to be heard,” Branagh continues. “It’s about personality and theatricality, and the tools of politics and performance. This is reflected in the media every day. Shakespeare just happened to write about it 500 years ago.”

It is not hard to spot the modern-day political parallels Branagh is drawing. “The play also asks, ‘What is reality? What are facts? And whose facts are they?’ In the age of fake news, our audience can’t avoid that connection. And underpinning that rage, it also talks of the effects of ‘the poison of deep grief’.”

It will be a stripped-down production, with an edited text and pared-back set. “I purposefully want the whole thing to be clean and lean,” he says. “So the audience is invited to feel and concentrate with the characters, human to human.”

Branagh with Richard Easton in Derek Jacobi's Hamlet. Photo: Birmingham Repertory Theatre
Branagh with Richard Easton in Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet. Photo: Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Returning to the relevance of the play, Branagh says: “You direct Hamlet for the age you live in. And this is an age where communication appears to be king.

“On the surface, it is access all areas. But underneath in the human psyche, some key intelligence and expression for the human heart and soul seem far harder to explore with just 140 characters.”

This is a “civilised Hamlet, living the conflict of thought versus instinct” – it will explore consideration versus instant response. He adds: “That tension is for the performances to explore and express. We all face a version of the dilemma.”

So what has Branagh learned from previous encounters with Hamlet? “Directing it now, I’m much more aware of the obstacles you face in creating a Shakespeare production. Most of all, I have learned to get out of the way of the text.”

Branagh first floated the idea with Hiddleston seven years ago. They have worked repeatedly together but it was the younger man’s performance in Othello at the Donmar in 2007 that first caught Branagh’s eye.

“Tom is a natural when it comes to performing Shakespeare. He has a real ease with the dialogue. We had talked for a while about the project. RADA, at this point in its life, is a beautiful home for it.”

A year after Othello they co-starred at the Donmar in Ivanov. Subsequently Branagh, in his guise as Hollywood director, cast Hiddleston as the trickster Loki in the blockbuster Thor. They also worked together on the television series Wallander.

“We have a genuine rapport when we work together. This is hugely important between an actor and director, especially on a play like Hamlet,” Branagh says.

This will be a Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company production. Set up in 2015, the company may have ended its initial seven-play residency at the Garrick Theatre but it is looking at various projects to build on the work created over the run.

“It means we are not coming at the production cold,” Branagh says. “We are using relationships that have been built over a series of productions over a few years and in some cases longer. Those relationships add deeper layers and more nuance to the work. We continue to practise and develop what we’re interested in across the authors, the artists and the audience.”

The cast will include RADA alumni, with two leaving graduates among them, and the backstage crew will use students from the technical theatre course.

The training for young actors has evolved since Branagh’s time there, although the basic skills and tuition remain. “Training has become much more geared towards the skills actors need today – especially training for the camera,” he says.

“That doesn’t mean that theatre training suffers. The basics remain the same. RADA prepares actors for the modern multi-platform world, but I remain hugely impressed with their basic acting provisions including vocal training, stage fighting and accent work.”

Access and diversity questions have long been raised around drama schools, and Branagh agrees increasing representation is a “pressing issue”. He continues: “RADA has a genuine desire to tackle these issues and evidentially does. I think they are doing well. RADA has a very proud history. It has always been an outward-looking and creatively exciting place.”

Branagh sees parallels with the work he chooses. “In Dunkirk, as with The Winter’s Tale [which he directed at the Garrick in 2015], there is the story of a tragic loss of innocence – national and personal. And with Murder on the Orient Express and Hamlet there is the theme of revenge. Does it ever provide justice or emotional closure in human interaction? I don’t want to overdo the parallels, but I can always feel my projects bleed into each other whether on stage or screen.”

For someone who glides easily between those mediums, Branagh’s passion for theatre shines through. He still gets that feeling he had as a 15-year-old of being blown away by an extraordinary production, most recently with the “glorious” Jez Butterworth play The Ferryman in the West End.

“In theatre you have to command, not merely demand, the attention of an audience,” he says. “With exceptional work, there is something about the theatre that is uniquely potent. The best of it makes an impact on the soul and the solar plexus, and haunts you thereafter.”

Hamlet runs at RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, September 1-23

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