Branagh as leading actor, director and theatre company manager

Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company is rolling out seven plays in its year-long season, including Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, in which actor Branagh is co-starring with Judi Dench (both left).
Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company is rolling out seven plays in its year-long season, including Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, in which actor Branagh is co-starring with Judi Dench (both above).PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

LONDON •A crescendo of caterwauling sounded through the thin walls of the room that Kenneth Branagh was using as a makeshift office. Seated in one of many small chairs with little built-in desks, clearly salvaged from a school classroom and stacked around the perimeter, Branagh laughed. "I just want to point out that did not come from our company," he said.

That would be the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, a new ensemble that he has spent about two years putting together and which began previews of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in London on Oct 17 at the Garrick Theatre in the West End.

It is the first production in a seven-play year-long season that includes a Terence Rattigan double bill, Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet, Francis Veber's The Painkiller, Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet and John Osborne's The Entertainer.

For slightly more than a year, Branagh, 54, will wear the multiple hats of leading actor, director and company manager alongside stars Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Richard Madden, Lily James and Zoe Wanamaker, and actors straight out of drama school.

The Irish-born, English-accented Branagh is famous as a stage and screen interpreter of Shakespeare and as a deft straddler of the high- low culture divide, with movie blockbusters such as Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2015) on his directorial resume.

But for eight weeks before the Garrick opening, Branagh, 25 actors and his creative collaborators had been installed in this modest community centre near Regent's Park in North London, preparing for the project that he described as "a continuation of things I've been drawn to through most of my career".

In 1987, he and David Parfitt founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, which toured Romeo And Juliet and Twelfth Night to great acclaim and offered actors such as Dench, Jacobi and Geraldine McEwan the chance to direct Shakespeare.

Many of the artists whom Branagh worked with about 30 years ago at Renaissance, including composer Patrick Doyle, producers Marilyn Eardley and Ed Snape, Shakespeare scholar Russell Jackson, as well as actors Michael Pennington and Dench, are with him now.

He said the idea of forming a new company had been "marinating" for a long time and that the time seemed right after the lengthy Cinderella shoot.

His extended immersion in film - his appearance in Macbeth in 2013 was his first stage outing in 10 years - "just happened", he said.

"To my surprise, film took over, but there were always a number of plays I wanted to work on and I was continuing to have conversations with people such as Judi about Shakespearean acting. All of these things were active and seemed to be wanting to happen now."

He is appearing in The Winter's Tale (with Dench), Harlequinade (one of the Rattigan plays), The Entertainer and The Painkiller, but not in Romeo And Juliet, which he is directing. The young star-crossed lovers will be played by his Cinderella stars James and Madden.

With his new troupe, Branagh has placed himself within the sterling British tradition of the actormanager and has invited comparisons with Laurence Olivier, whom he played in the film, My Week With Marilyn (2011). Olivier also ran his own company, starred in its productions and famously performed in The Entertainer.

Asked how he felt about these comparisons, Branagh said: "For good or ill, there are huge concentrations of attention on actors of different generations, and Olivier, who bestrode the narrow world like a Colossus, had that to the max. Anyone who has some prominence or does similar things has been measured in tough ways against him."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2015, with the headline 'Branagh as leading actor, director and theatre company manager'. Print Edition | Subscribe