Dallas — Kenneth Branagh is one the best known contemporary interpreters of the works of William Shakespeare, having played many of Willy Shakes’ characters on stage and in film, and having directed films of Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love's Labour's Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006).
Makes sense that he would play Shakespeare, the man, at some point.
It happens in the film All is True, currently showing at the Angelika Film Centers in Dallas and Plano, which he also directs. The script, by his longtime friend Ben Elton, imagines Shakespeare in the final three years of his life, having returned to Stratford after the Globe Theatre burned during a production of Henry VIII (that play’s subtitle is “All is True”). The film also stars Judi Dench as his wife Anne Hathaway, Kathryn Wilder as Judith Shakespeare, Lydia Wilson as Susanna Shakespeare, and Ian McKellen as Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. In the film, Shakespeare grapples with the death of his young son Hamnet and works on rebuilding his relationships with his wife and daughters — and they call him out for not being there.
TheaterJones chatted with Kenneth Branagh by phone, to talk about the film, playing Shakespeare, and his love for The Comedy of Errors.
TheaterJones: You and Ben Elton started talking about this idea decades ago. Tell me about those original conversations and finally making it.
Kenneth Branagh: We met in 1988. He came to see a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Judi Dench, in which I appeared in the role of Benedick and he accused me of having made up some of the dialogue. I felt this was not the case, it was down to Judi Dench’s very naturalistic approach, and Shakespeare’s incredibly conversational prose. He said, “I’m going to go read the play.” He did. He came back and said “He’s very clever, isn’t he, this Shakespeare guy?” I said, “Yes he is, we should do something about that.”
Ben appeared in [my 1993] film of Much Ado About Nothing [as Verges], and that was very enjoyable. By the time it came around to probably two years ago and I was asked by him to be in his brilliant sitcom about Shakespeare, called Upstart Crow, I took the opportunity to take him up on that question. I said, “Look it’s 30 years later but why don’t we write something where Shakespeare continues to be conversational and naturalistic and why don’t you do that writing and could you imagine writing a chamber drama about the period in his life when he went back to Stratford, and he was very keen to write about Shakespeare away from the theater, away from that “normal space” for him, and put him out of his comfort zone and back at answering the questions that we might legitimately suppose a wife and daughters who have seen little of him in the previous 20 years might be asking.
Those questions seem to be the thrust of the movie. There is a thread about his grief over the death of his young son, Hamnet, whose funeral he was unable to attend. But his relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway, and his daughters Judith (Hamnet's twin) and Susanna is the heart of the story.
There was always going to be this moment of reflection. Some of it was going to be colored by the pursuit of the truth about his son Hamnet, the son who was lost to them when Hamnet was 11 years old, in 1596. In Shakespeare’s later work there’s so much of a preoccupation with this sense of loss, and also in his later work, he uses magic. In The Tempest and Pericles and Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, he uses magic to try to create happy endings. There’s a very poignant feeling of a desire for families to reunite, for twins to be brought together once again. I find that very touching and poignant, and I think it was a natural place coming from the plays, that should be introduced to interpretation of this late period in his life.
It’s not known how Hamnet died, so how did you come up with your concept for his death?
No, we know only that it was death amongst a very few at a time when children’s deaths occurred in large groups because of the plague or a fire or the other afflictions that would appear in Elizabethan England. There is no cause of death that is registered in the parish register at Holy Trinity in Stratford.
A few times in the film, I thought the characters were saying “Hamlet” instead of “Hamnet.” Was that intentional?
No. I would agree with you it does sound similar. Occasionally we had to make people do it again because they were saying “Hamlet” rather than “Hamnet.” It sounds so similar, so much so that I think it was one of the prompts in the writing of it that made Ben say, “rather than Hamlet [the play], of father haunting the son, why don’t we have the son haunting the father?” And why don’t we also consider that in that play, a suspected suicide through drowning has an enormous impact on the lives around him. It had a very strong resonance, including the very close similarity of sound.
Aside from that concept, I didn’t catch a reference to Hamlet, whereas many other plays are mentioned or referenced in the film.
Yeah there were no quotes, merely the fact of his name being so close, and a different kind of ghost and a different kind of haunting.
The press materials indicate that in imagining Shakespeare’s final three years, you filled in gaps about his life with what he revealed in his own writings. Can you give an example of that?
In his play King John there’s a very direct reference to the pain that is felt to the loss of the boy Arthur: “grief fills the room up with my absent child.” It goes on at some length to describe this aching loss; we chose to make that implicit, and not explicit. That sense of the appalling loss ... for instance in The Winter’s Tale of Mamillius, a son essentially dies of a broken heart. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes falsely accuses his wife of infidelity. He is wrong; the gods reveal that this is the truth. But on the way, the terrible carnage that has been [wrought] means that young Mamillius, a boy of around Hamnet’s age, passes away of an unknown illness that we consider to be stress-related, or dying of a broken heart. That particularly, the loss of Mamillius in The Winter’s Tale was a critical influence on how Shakespeare might have been preoccupied by the loss of his own son, because through the rest of that play it never leaves him, and it breaks him.
One of my favorite speeches in the film comes close to the end, when Sir Thomas accuses Shakespeare of having wasted his life on this thing he considers frivolous [view this clip above]. Shakespeare’s response is akin to the modern-day argument that the arts are not only important for what they teach us, and how they entertain us, but for employing people and having economic impact in our communities.
For me that was heartfelt, the cri de cœur from somebody who knew himself to be an artist in his fingertips but also, but what a thing [he accomplished]. I tell you what, Shakespeare was a producer, a writer, a director and an actor in his own theater, not only working in or on his 37 plays but also in the plays of contemporaries of his who were also prolific. And so to achieve the work level that he would have been involved with across those 20 years is staggering. And the idea, as you say, that somehow you get up and make a few funny faces and 5,000 people give you money every day and you can have a glamorous life, is different from the pragmatic box-office reality of a lot of effort spent on things that the public is entirely indifferent to, and certainly someone like Sir Thomas would not be able to understand if we didn’t allow Shakespeare — our Shakespeare — to have a moment where the worm turns and he lets him have it between the eyes.
William Shakespeare experiences many emotions in the film, notably grief. But he’s also funny, as we would expect from someone who wrote some brilliant comedies.
I enjoy a bewildered quality that he has when he gets back home, almost perplexed by his own genius and what might have been the extraordinary dreamland that was to go to the thriving metropolis from his deeply quiet Stratford market-town. I enjoy the fact that in the early part of the movie this master of words is fairly silent. And that despite his knowledge of flora and fauna — he knows their names and he mentions them in his plays many times — I like the idea of putting a man out of his comfort zone and in a place where he has to find a new way to be creative, or at least find a way to control the dog. Shakespeare uses a dog in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Crab the dog. I’ve never seen a production of that play where the dog didn’t succeed, whether the dog is live or stuffed. There’s a quality in Shakespeare where I think he’s anarchic and absurd in the humor. Something we tried to bring out in our film of Much Ado about Nothing with Dogberry and Verges. It’s just straight-up-and-down wacky, and it was nice to get even a flavor of that here.
What about that montage, almost like one you’d see in a rom-com, with Shakespeare being human and silly, playing with the dog, gardening with his granddaughter, etc. It's an interesting stylistic diversion for a film like this.
It’s a compressed version of things that a film would offer, to understand that there would be plenty of small pleasures or experiences: the dog, the child, the time in the garden … these are things that Shakespeare writes about. He writes about these tiny moments, snapshots in life. As a storyteller himself Shakespeare would use any range of techniques to keep our audience [engaged]. For instance, in a tragedy, at the end of the fourth act or beginning of the fifth act, he almost always brings on the clowns. It’s usually crude, it’s usually broad, it often contains slapstick, it’s to relieve tension and to get people to be able to accept what might be the tremendously intense, emotional end.
Because of your experience performing in and directing Shakespeare’s plays, on stage and in film, did it give you more perspective into how to play the man himself?
I believe that it did. It’s obviously a subjective thing, Others might see it and say that’s not how I imagine him at all from the inside out, but it is how I imagine a version of Shakespeare, who is deeply human, humane and humorous. All of that really came from my encounters with his work across 40 years of having the privilege of having to watch it, or be in it, or direct it.
What advice would you give directors who are staging the plays that we now consider problematic, such as The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice?
Be bold with these plays and don’t be afraid of upsetting any kind of Shakespeare orthodoxy about them. I think Shakespeare really does hold a mirror up, and the good and the bad is there, and maybe some of the bad is in some of those plays, or at least that which is now resonating in the world in a different way. I say be bold, be honest, be direct, be free and liberated in a production of those plays.
What play do you think is underappreciated?
The Comedy of Errors. It’s very, very funny and often seen as merely funny. It was part of our thoughts when we were considering All is True. It’s the first of Shakespeare’s mature plays even though it is very broadly comedic, but it does have tremendous tenderness and once again, it has heart. The story is about the reunification of twins. Ben Elton, by the by, has twins, and Shakespeare had twins but tragically lost one. The Comedy of Errors, although very funny, to me is extremely poignant.
Which play would you like to make into a film?
The Comedy of Errors might be interesting to do. I suppose somebody like me would be looking down the line at the plays where the subject, maybe the characters, start to accord with one’s age. The Comedy of Errors has potential and popular appeal. It has been transmuted into other forms, such as musicals, etc. It has beautiful comedy and beautiful tenderness, so that’s kind of in the forefront of my brain right now.