Kenneth Branagh has the mild, round face of a schoolboy, and the clipped politeness of someone in a hurry— fitting in a man who has accomplished more at 29 than most people manage in a lifetime. Besides directing and starring in a hit film of Shakespeare’s Henry V, nominated for three 1989 Oscars, he has also written an autobiography, Beginning, played several lead roles in London’s West End and co-founded his own theatre troupe, the three-year-old Renaissance Theatre Company. For six months, Branagh and his actors have, been touring their productions of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear to cities including Tokyo, Budapest, Los Angeles and Chicago. Last week, they began their final engagement, two weeks (until June 19) at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. Branagh is frequently compared to another multi-talented star of the British stage, Sir Laurence Olivier, who died in 1989. It is praise that Branagh, the Belfastborn son of a carpenter, says he does not need. “Of course, there are worse things than being called another Olivier,” he said. “But frankly, it’s a nuisance—probably more for other people than for me.”
As a director, Branagh—like Olivier before him—tends to take a conservative approach to Shakespeare. On the whole, his shaping of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is taut and fresh, emphasizing the bursting sexuality of its young lovers. There is a profusion of convincing hugging and kissing—and a lot of feisty arguing fuelled by thwarted sexuality. That gives
Branagh’s production a welcome exuberance, although occasionally the director goes too far. In the final scene, the cast breaks into a Broadway-style song-and-dance routine. It is a deplorable attempt to curry the audience’s favor.
Ethna Roddy’s Puck, the forest elf who causes numerous problems for the young lovers, charms with her earthy, hyperactive strangeness. She seems half animal, twisting her head like a dog at pains to understand what her master, Oberon (Simon Roberts), is telling her. And Branagh is wonderfully amusing in the minor comic role of Peter Quince, the director of the little play put on by the Athenian workers. Wearing white gloves, he motions to his actors, on and off stage, with all the unctuous finesse of a fourth-rate master of ceremonies.
Branagh and his cast have far less luck with King Lear, the tragic tale of the foolish old ruler who gives his kingdom to his daughters. In their youthful hands, the high passion of the play tends to degenerate into unconvincing shouting. Richard Briers has a few strong scenes as Lear, before the role wears him down. But the brightest point of the production is Emma Thompson, Branagh’s wife, who plays the king’s fool with a humped back, a bad leg and a plaintively ironic delivery. Branagh himself is a disappointment, sleepwalking through the part of the young Edgar, who feigns madness to escape persecution. Olivier need not make room on Olympus yet.
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