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Mark Shenton on Kenneth Branagh's season at the Garrick
There's nothing new, of course, to the idea of actor/managers who preside over their own touring or West End companies, bringing star power to their regimes that it turn brings other stars to the table. British theatre has regularly been run by it: in the days long before subsidy, actors like Henry Irving, David Garrick, Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Donald Wolfit famously led their own outfits.
Sir Laurence Olivier was famously the first artistic director of the National Theatre when it was founded at Chichester and then moved to the Old Vic in the early 60s; and under Peter Hall, the National had a company led by actors Ian McKellen and Edward Petherbridge for a time.
But by and large the days of the actor-manager have mostly disappeared, with occasional exceptions like the Old Vic, which has for the last ten years been under the thriving stewardship of Kevin Spacey (though he's just handed the reigns to director Matthew Warchus) or Sheffield's award-winning and influential Crucible Theatre, which Daniel Evans presides over, mostly working as a director, but sometimes also acting there.
But now an actor and director — who has been tipped in the past as a possible contender to run both the National and Old Vic Theatres — has just announced that he's to lead his own company to take up residence at the West End's Garrick Theatre for a year from October for a season of five plays. He will star in four himself, two of which will be co-directed by him, while a 5th show in which he will not appear will see him directing Richard Madden and Lily James in the title roles of Romeo and Juliet, who both starred in his recent film version of 'Cinderella'.
This isn't, of course, the first time that Kenneth Branagh has run a company, or brought it to the West End: in 1987 he co-founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, launching it with his own debut play Public Enemy. I interviewed him at the time 28 years ago in the cafe foyer of the Lyric Hammersmith, where it was staged, and last week I reminded him of this when we caught up again on the phone recently.
"Are you one of the ten people who saw the play in the end?", he asked me."Probably the stupidest thing to do was to write my own play and then put all the money I had in my life a the age of 27 into it. It was a formative experience, though. The God's honest truth is that people didn't come, and it toughens you up. I'm now grateful for it."
The company went on to invite some veteran actors, including Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and the late Geraldine McEwan, to direct Shakespeare for the company in a season that ran at the West End's Phoenix Theatre. Now Dench, who also directed him in a revival for that company of Osborne's Look Back in Anger, is to re-join him to co-star in The Winter's Tale that will open the season. And Branagh will himself star as Archie Rice in another Osborne play, famously originated by Laurence Olivier, called The Entertainer.
"I've enjoyed most of my theatrical work in the last twenty years all over the place in different parts of the country," he says, referring to shows like 'Richard III' at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival and most recently The Painkiller in Belfast with Rob Brydon (that will transfer to the Garrick as the 3rd production in the season). "But it feels like a good time now to engage with the changing demands of the West End - it feels like an exciting and evolving moment in the life of the West End, and London is a vital place to be."
And part of the reason for that, of course, is the ground-work laid by Michael Grandage with his Donmar in the West End season at Wyndham's, which Ken joined to play the title role of Chekhov's 'Ivanov' in. Grandage subsequently launched his own company that had a year's residency at the Noel Coward and is about to return there for a new play with Nicole Kidman; while Jamie Lloyd has also now just completed his second season at the Trafalgar Studios.
These are indeed exciting times in the West End; Kenneth Branagh is about to make it even more exciting.