Were We Entertained? Reviewing a Year of Branagh Theatre

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In a little over two weeks the curtain will come down on The Branagh Theatre Company’s (KBTC) year-long season at The Garrick. It opened last October with The Winter’s Tale and Harlequinade / All on Her Own in repertory – starring acting heavyweights Judi Dench, Michael Pennington and Zoe Wannamaker – it scooped-up the West End transfer of Red Velvet, before French farce The Painkiller in March with Rob Brydon. Romeo and Juliet followed in May with rising stars Lily James and Richard Madden, before ending with the elegiac The Entertainer which opened at the end of August. Twelve months, six plays and several star names later, but what has the company achieved and what does this mean for London theatre?

The concept of the actor-manager goes back almost 500 years but became more common in the Victorian era, with Henry Irving being the most successful, before the professionalization of backstage roles altered the ways in which the commercial and artistic development of shows were managed. Kenneth Branagh’s has himself attempted the role before in the Renaissance Theatre Company from 1987-1992 which combined a variety of fringe, West End and touring shows over several years before branching out into the films that eventually took Branagh away from the theatre. Coming back to it nearly 25 years later is, then, an interesting choice – possible a sense of unfinished business for the youthful Branagh that has culminated in this series of new productions.

In many ways the season felt like a coming together of the last two decades of Branagh’s career, working with people he likes and knows well, while integrating his knowledge of film and TV techniques with his arguable preference for fairly classic-forms of theatre production. The most damning criticism levelled at his productions by the critics has been that they are ‘old-fashioned’, but even if you consider them to be – and I’m not sure I do – there is a place for the traditional alongside the innovative in the London theatre landscape, as the popularity of fairly straightforward touring productions would suggest.

But Branagh and his co-director Rob Ashford have taken risks both in the interpretation of some elements of the text and in the production values that speak to some of the modern trends in current theatre. It was Romeo and Juliet that copped-it most from the critics with what was, in my view, an overly harsh blasting of the interpretation and male lead performance. Instead I saw an attempt to play-up the more comic elements of the text, particularly in the balcony scene which became less mushy and more in tune with out slightly derisory take on modern love, that would appeal to the younger crowd attracted by the TV-star leads.

Likewise critical comment on his interpretation of The Entertainer mostly centred around the fact it wasn’t the same as the Olivier production, whereas Branagh’s interpretation of the lead role was necessarily different and extremely poignant, creating a fluidity between the scenes that is a mark of modern approaches to direction. In difficult circumstances, it added fresh insight into a play that is still tainted by the ghosts of its earlier performers.

The ‘old-fashioned’ tag that dogged the series can also be seen as a deliberate choice and actually part of a wider engagement with the biggest theatrical innovation of the twenty-first century – the live cinema screening. Branagh and Ashford’s presentation of Romeo and Juliet was like a 40s Fellini film in black and white. Now, that shouldn’t be the sole preoccupation of directors, but the way we consume theatre, particularly outside of London, is changing and a cinema broadcast could potentially reach more people in one night than attend an entire run, so it was interesting to see that they quite carefully incorporated ideas on how this would look into their finished stage version. The Winter’s Tale and, this week, The Entertainer were also broadcast so, increasingly production teams have an eye for the cinematic – even when it’s not being broadcast as the spectacular Red Barn currently at the National Theatre demonstrates – and while this may affect the staging and interpretation of live performance to a degree, it’s also something that’s not going away.

We should also remember that this was an inaugural season and without knowing what reaction the suite of productions would elicit or whether there was even a market for them, it seems natural that Branagh and co would play it safe both on the choice of shows and in choosing a bankable cast to attract audiences. It may not seem it now we’ve seen them, but the inclusion of Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, a 50s slapstick vehicle that was considerably out of fashion, and the French farce The Painkiller were both notable risks among the more sellable Shakespeare and modern classics. Yet critics and audiences generally loved them, adding much needed levity to a dramatic season and giving Branagh in particular a rare chance to show his comedic skill. Harlequinade especially has been given a new lease of life and we may see it crop-up more regularly in regional and touring productions, while the obsession with life behind-the-scenes that the play captures has arguably marked out an audience who may also be interested in the current revival of The Dresser.

As a new company, Branagh Theatre has also relied on star-power to attract audiences, not just the chance to see Branagh himself – having not appeared in London for 8 years – but in enticing well-loved names like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi to bolster ticket sales. But this is something that every theatre is doing whether it has a company season or not and looking around the West End this year much of what you see is established star vehicles – from No Man’s Land with Stewart and McKellen next door, to Faustus with Kit Harrington, the stage return of Michael Crawford in The Go-Between and a bevy of others. Yet, this season has also given room to acting’s rising stars like Tom Bateman and Jessie Buckley, as well as some fresh-out of drama school graduates who have the chance to learn in exulted company – a training that was also offered to young directors associated with the KBTC. The creation of community and support for development is one of the vital roles a Company structure can play in developing the careers of young performers and the production team – what effect this will have on the individuals involved will be seen in the coming years but, while it may be less obvious to audiences, it is a meaningful way to induct new creatives into the profession.

So what does all of this mean for theatre and where should the KBTC go from here? London is never short of good plays but a Company season always feels a bit special, a collection of plays with something particular to say. And this first grouping took an affectionate look at the nature of theatre and theatre people, as well as examining a particular kind of human desperation – either born of love, loneliness or failure that have made Branagh’s own performances a significant highlight. But there have been companies before and will be again, whether this one survives remains to be seen.

We should hope for a second season in a year or two, but one that having now established itself, can be afford to be more experimental in its allocation of leading roles, in style of production and even in the incorporation of new writing among the classics. The choice of the Garrick was to some degree an unfortunate one, a lovely restored theatre, but the raking is too slight and the curvature of the auditorium so pronounced that many seats have a restricted view – although these were priced accordingly – but maybe somewhere like the Wyndhams would be better.

The commercial success and revenues generated by the inaugural Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season may not be known for some time, but performances always felt full, while, artistically, on balance, it should be considered a success, presenting a variety of interesting and accessible work that created a genuine sense of anticipation and a clear affection among its audiences. Not least, the opportunity to see Branagh himself after so long an interval from the London stage has been a pleasure, and one we should hope will be soon repeated. Roll on season two!

The inaugural season of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company ran from 17 October 2015 – 12 November 2016 (when The Entertainer ends). The Entertainer will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 27 October.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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