Learn more about Kenneth Branagh before seeing him in 'King Lear'

King Lear will play at the Wyndham's Theatre beginning performances on 21 October 2023. Kenneth Branagh will direct and play the title role for this limited engagement.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

This autumn, Kenneth Branagh is pivoting from his big-screen adventures as Agatha Christie’s moustachioed sleuth Poirot to both direct and star in a new West End production of King Lear. Branagh’s take on the great Shakespearean tragedy comes to London’s Wyndham’s Theatre in October, and will also play at New York’s Griffin Theater in 2024.

So, as Branagh makes his much-anticipated return to the stage, it’s a good time to look back at his remarkably varied career both in theatre and on screen, acting and directing – from Henry V and Frankenstein to Harry Potter and Oppenheimer. Plus, we’ll dig into what you can expect from Branagh’s King Lear.

Check back soon for information on King Lear tickets on London Theatre.

Kenneth Branagh’s beginnings

Branagh was born in Belfast in 1960 to working-class parents – a childhood he later dramatised in the acclaimed 2021 movie Belfast, starring Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe and Judi Dench.

His family moved to England when he was nine to escape the Troubles in Ireland, and Branagh pursued his passion for drama at school. He went on to study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (known as RADA) in London.

Kenneth Branagh on stage

One of Branagh’s early theatrical triumphs was Julian Mitchell’s play Another Country, about the spy Guy Burgess’s days at public school. The 1981 Greenwich Theatre production starred Rupert Everett, and the West End transfer in 1982 saw Branagh take over the role of Judd. Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth subsequently joined the cast.

Branagh was also praised for his classical roles, appearing in productions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry V in 1984. He co-founded the Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987 with David Parfitt, staging plays like Romeo and Juliet, in which Branagh starred with Samantha Bond, and Twelfth Night, with Richard Briers and Frances Barber.

Dench made her directorial debut with the company’s Much Ado About Nothing, which reunited Branagh and Bond. Geraldine McEwan also directed As You Like It, and Derek Jacobi directed Branagh as Hamlet. Branagh then co-starred with Emma Thompson in the great modern play Look Back in Anger in 1989, again directed by Dench.

Branagh went on to devote more time to his film work, but he did continue his theatre roles too. In 2001 he directed The Play What I Wrote, both in London and on Broadway a couple of years later. In 2002 he played Richard III at the Sheffield Crucible, and in 2003 he starred in David Mamet’s Edmond at the National Theatre.

Branagh returned to the West End in 2008, starring in Chekhov’s Ivanov – a new adaptation by Tom Stoppard. He co-directed Macbeth in 2013, starring alongside Alex Kingston, in a production that ran first at the Manchester International Festival and then at New York’s Park Avenue Armory.

In 2015, Branagh founded his actor-manager Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. It launched with a five-show season at the Garrick Theatre in the West End, with shows including The Winter’s Tale, Romeo and Juliet, and The Entertainer, and a starry company that featured Dench, Zoe Wanamaker, Lily James, Richard Madden, Jacobi and Rob Brydon. The company’s next production is Branagh’s King Lear.

Kenneth Branagh on screen

Branagh made his film debut with an uncredited role in the 1981 running drama Chariots of Fire. He then made a splash with the Belfast-set Billy Plays, which were part of the BBC’s Play for Today TV series and ran from 1982-4. He also had a key role in the 1987 film adaptation of the novel A Month in the Country, which also starred Colin Firth.

But it was Shakespeare that really cemented Branagh’s screen career – as both actor and director. He adapted the RSC production of Henry V for the big screen in 1989, while also reprising the title role. The Oscar-winning movie featured Jacobi, Paul Scofield, Thompson, Dench, Brian Blessed, Christian Bale, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane and more.

Branagh also brought Much Ado About Nothing to cinemas in 1993. He and Thompson led another big-name cast, featuring Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale and Michael Keaton. Brangh played Iago to Laurence Fishburne’s Othello in 1995, and directed an Oscar-nominated movie adaptation of Hamlet in 1996, starring with Kate Winslet, Jacobi, Julie Christie and Rufus Sewell.

Branagh appeared in a variety of other films too throughout the 1990s, included the romantic noir Dead Again, the British drama Peter’s Friends, the legal thriller The Gingerbread Man, and Woody Allen’s satire Celebrity. However, he had a major dud with his version of Frankenstein in 1994, despite a cast that included Robert De Niro and Helena Bonham Carter, and another with the dubious 1999 Will Smith Western, Wild Wild West.

But Branagh bounced back with projects like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which he played the vain Gilderoy Lockhart; the survival drama Shackleton; and the Emmy-winning Roosevelt drama Warm Springs. Branagh also starred as Inspector Kurt Wallander in the Bafta-winning TV adaptation of the hit crime novels, Wallander.

Branagh made a major impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe by directing Thor in 2011, bringing Shakespearean flair to the superhero family drama, and marshalling a cast that included Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston. He then played his hero Laurence Olivier in movie My Week with Marilyn, earning an Oscar nomination.

More recently, Branagh has collaborated with Christopher Nolan on several projects, including Dunkirk, Tenet and Oppenheimer. Branagh has also become the new Hercule Poirot, directing and starring in several big-screen Agatha Christie adaptations, including Murder on the Orient Express and the upcoming A Haunting in Venice.

In 2021, Branagh drew on his childhood for the acclaimed Belfast, winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Bafta for Outstanding British Film. He also played former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the 2022 TV drama This England.

What to expect from King Lear

Branagh has a long and illustrious career directing and acting in Shakespeare plays, as well as bringing them to mass audiences via innovative productions and screen adaptations. That means his King Lear is a notable moment for theatre, although it’s a serious challenge to both direct and star in this taxing work.

As well as Branagh in the lead role, the company will feature Deborah Alli, Doug Colling, Melanie-Joyce Bermudez, Jessica Revell, Eleanor de Rohan, Joseph Kloska, and Corey Mylchreest. The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company is also partnering with Branagh’s old school, RADA, and the production sees the professional debut of several RADA students.

The show has set and costumes by Jon Bauser, projections from Nina Dunn, lighting by Paul Keogan, choreography by Aletta Collins, and sound design/compositions by Ben and Max Ringham. It premieres at the Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End this October, playing until December, and then transfers to The Shed’s Griffin Theater in New York in autumn 2024.

Check back soon for more information about booking King Lear tickets on London Theatre – plus our review.

Photo credit: Kenneth Branagh (Photo courtesy of production)

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