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Kenneth Branagh launches West End season starring Judi Dench

Kenneth Branagh. Photo: Johan Persson Kenneth Branagh. Photo: Johan Persson
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Kenneth Branagh has formed a theatre company that will stage a year-long season of plays at the Garrick Theatre in London.

The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company will cast the eponymous actor alongside Judi Dench and Rob Brydon. The creative team includes director Rob Ashford, designer Christopher Oram and composer Patrick Doyle.

It will present plays at the Garrick from October, opening with The Winter’s Tale. This will star Dench as Paulina, with Branagh – who also co-directs with Ashford – playing Leontes. Ashford previously directed Branagh in Macbeth, at the Manchester International Festival in 2013. The Winter’s Tale marks Branagh’s return to the West End stage for the first time since he appeared in Ivanov in 2008.

Other productions in the season include Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, Francis Veber’s The Painkiller, starring Branagh and Brydon, and Romeo and Juliet, starring Richard Madden and Lily James – who appeared together in Branagh’s recent film version of Cinderella. The Entertainer, which will star Branagh as Archie Rice, concludes the season.

Branagh told The Stage he had formed the company to “make a lot of good work from plays you feel very strongly about”, adding that his previous work with Ashford and Oram meant between them they “already had this extended family of artists, actors and technicians”.

“The various passions we all had for these plays started to come together and now we have found a way and the place to do it,” he said, adding that he, Ashford and Oram had an understanding of each other’s “sensibilities”.

Ashford, who joined Branagh for a launch event earlier this week, said: “The idea of continuing to work together and make some more great theatre was an appeal.”

Speaking about the choice of plays, Branagh said The Winter’s Tale was something he had wanted to do his entire career.

“I fell in love with it when I was 17 or 18. Judi has famously been in the play as Hermione and Perdita, but to have her in the company with this great part [Paulina] and for us to work together on Shakespeare, which we have not done since Chichester [Coriolanus] 20 years ago, is wonderful,” he said, adding: “To my amazement, I have not done Shakespeare on stage for London in over 20 years, so that is exciting.”

Branagh said he had chosen Madden and James for Romeo and Juliet because they were “well suited to the parts at a time when they are hungry to do them”.

He added that he had been looking for a playhouse to stage the productions in, and said the Garrick suited his aim for the season.

“These plays have epic dimensions but great intimacy. Our interest is a conversational approach to Shakespeare in the playing of it that does not deny the plays’ grandeur. Here you get to see the whites of people’s eyes, and it’s great acoustically,” he said.

Oram revealed that there would be a slight amendment to the seating arrangement in the Garrick to ensure audiences have the best view of the stage.

The season, produced by Fiery Angel, concludes in November next year with The Entertainer, directed by Ashford, who said the play was one he had wanted to do for a while, and that the role of Archie Rice was one Branagh was suited to.

Ed Snape, from Fiery Angel, said he had known Branagh for some time and that Marilyn Eardley, from the production company, had worked with the actor and director as part of his Renaissance Theatre Company, which operated from 1987 to 1992. Fiery Angel also produced The Painkiller with Brydon and Branagh in Belfast.

“We had high hopes for it to come into the West End then but it didn’t, but then conversations restarted with Ken saying he was thinking about doing a season in the West End, asking if we would like to be involved. Strangely I didn’t need to consider that one too long – it’s what they call a no brainer,” he said,

Appearing in four out of the five plays, and directing Romeo and Juliet, means Branagh has put his film and television career on hold.

But he said that he was “appreciative” that everyone involved in the season creatively, which also includes lighting designer Neil Austin, casting director Lucy Bevan and sound designer Christopher Shutt, was putting other work on hold.

“The commitment they are making is significant, and it’s much easier when you feel other people are deciding, ‘You know what, we have the chance to do something unusual here’,” Branagh said, adding: “From my point of view, it’s not a question of giving anything up; it’s an opportunity to have this intense burst of creativity, which I am as excited about as anything I have ever done.”

Branagh added that he hoped the company would “earn its place in the West End”.

“The West End doesn’t need us but I hope they will welcome us. We are certainly glad to be here. The honest endeavour and ambition is to do the best work we can, with people we believe in and work we are proud of and privileged to present. We are excited to get the best work possible in front of an audience,” he said.

Tickets cost from £15 and are on sale from April 17.

The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season in full

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare
October 17 to January 16, press performance November 7
Directors: Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford
Cast includes: Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench

Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan
Runs in repertory with The Winter’s Tale from October 24 to January 13, with press night on November 7
Directors: Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford
Cast includes: Kenneth Branagh

The Painkiller by Francis Veber, adapted by Sean Foley
March 5 to April 30, 2016, with press night March 17
Director: Sean Foley
Cast includes: Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon (reprising roles they played at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2011)

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
May 12 to August 13, 2016, with press night on May 25
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast includes: Lily James and Richard Madden

The Entertainer by John Osborne
August 20 to November 12, 2016, with press night on August 30
Director: Rob Ashford
Cast includes: Kenneth Branagh

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