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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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Harlequinade / All On Her Own – Garrick Theatre

by Johan PerssonAn earlier version was first published on The Reviews Hub Website.

It’s been eight years since Kenneth Branagh was last in the West End so the decision to form a theatre company and take up a prolonged residency at the Garrick has caused a great deal of excitement. Having been away too long, Branagh is clearly intending to make up for his absence with 5 plays in 10 months – an ambitious plan but one that evokes a more traditional age of theatre. It opens with his superb and near-perfect interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale shown alongside the lesser known Rattigan farce Harlequinade performed in rep until January.

But the evening begins with a late addition to the programme, an unrelated Rattigan monologue All On Her Own performed by Zoe Wannamaker. It’s a useful two-for-one deal for an audience and ensures the evening reaches ninety minutes with the two together. Rosemary Hodge sees the last of her party guests off and begins a conversation with her dead husband. As the drinks flow, Rosemary feels his presence in the room and begins to imitate his voice in order to understand the cause of his death. Through this one-sided conversation she explores the tone of their marriage, hinting at not showing enough appreciation for him when he was alive. We also see that they were quite different people, Rosemary a prim, middle class woman in a well-appointed home, and her husband a builder with seemingly down-to-earth opinions – like chalk and cheese – but she clearly retains a deep affection for him. It’s a thoughtful and touching performance from Wannamaker who uses the comedic moments well for balance as she imitates her husband’s northern voice, exploring the pain of separation from someone she didn’t realise she loved. In this affecting short monologue Wannamaker takes us through a huge range of emotional responses as her anger and fear overtake her, leaving us questioning how much of this is grief and how much guilt.

Linking the two pieces is a short film about CEMA a post-war policy to bring theatre and music beyond London which is referenced in Harlequinade having provided the funding for the theatre troop in this story to visit a northern town. As the curtain rises on the main event we see a garish looking set complete with wobbly scenery – the location is the dress rehearsal of a hammy production of Romeo and Juliet starring Arthur Gosport (Branagh) and Edna Selby (Miranda Raison) the famous theatrical couple in the midst of the balcony scene. Soon they are gently bickering over their cues and interpretation, as well struggling to manage the mini-dramas within the company. But in the wings is a girl who claims to be Gosport’s daughter that threatens to derail the production and brings startling news that could affect Arthur and Edna’s long-established marriage.

Rattigan’s rarely performed and delightful farce may well be given a new lease of life by Branagh’s lightly charming production. What prevents this from becoming as garish as its scenery is the restraint with which Ashford and Branagh direct, as well as the carefully judged layers of performance which ensure there is a noticeable difference between the consciously exaggerated acting of Arthur and Edna in character as Romeo and Juliet, and the often oblivious people they are when the lights go up. It’s quite close to the bone on several occasions with its hilarious depiction of ‘luvvies’ so immersed in the theatre that real-life becomes a haze and much of the humour derives from the way in which trivial events like Arthur deciding whether to jump on a bench in the balcony scene assume cataclysmic importance while the real-life possibility of bigamy barely registers with him. It is utter nonsense, completely daft and laugh-out-loud funny, but by subtly emphasising the somewhat human side to these people it keeps the audience with them, rather than appearing as grotesques. And it’s comforting to know that some of the silliness Rattigan noticed in the theatre in the 1940s still resonates today – maybe not so much has changed after all.

Branagh displays an unexpected but delightful gift for comedy as Arthur Gosport, both deliciously hammy as Romeo and humorously self-involved as himself. There are a lot of in-jokes but Gosport’s entire submersion in the theatre and obsession with ageing create some of this production’s finest moments including his complete inability to understand the real world. On finding a baby in the wings his only concern is that it may ruin someone’s exit. Branagh even manages to make a wig joke funny in what is a wonderfully vacant performance – as Gosport’s stage manager says “you can’t scatter a void”.

Tom Bateman is excellent as Jack Wakefield, the exasperated stage manager who seems to be the voice of sanity amidst the actorly chaos, as he manages their production and their lives, at the expense of his own – although Bateman cleverly lets us see that for all Wakefield’s frustration, he’s as wedded to the theatre as any of them. Miranda Raison as the squeaky Edna is delightfully fey when it suits her but also incredibly sharp when her marriage or more importantly her part is threatened which is fun to watch, and Hadley Fraser as First Halberdier deserves a mention merely for delivering a line about London critics never noticing him. The whole piece builds to a nice farcical pace which sits well alongside its rep partner as well as providing some much welcome cheer in the West End.

Harlequinade is a great companion piece to The Winter’s Tale, as well as an advert for the forthcoming version of Romeo and Juliet next year, and a chance to see a rare Rattigan. It may lack the wit and sparkle of the finest Noel Coward comedies but this production has bags of charm. And what a delight it is to see Branagh back in the West End after so long. As an influential force in modern theatre the formation of Branagh’s Company is setting a high standard with its inaugural season. Welcome back Ken, we’ve missed you.

Harlequinade / All On Her Own are at the Garrick Theatre until 13 January. Tickets have largely sold out but check regularly for returns. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

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