Kenneth Branagh's first job, after graduating from RADA, was starring in the original West End production of Another Country in 1982 opposite Rupert Everett. It made stars of both of them, though Branagh didn't reprise his performance in the subsequent film where his role was taken instead by Colin Firth, who had succeeded him in the West End; Everett would himself be succeeded by Daniel Day-Lewis onstage.
"I was very aware of it being a very special time," he told me recently. "Next door to us at the Lyric Gary Oldman was in Summit Conference with Glenda Jackson and Georgina Hale; up the street Tim Roth was in Berkoff's Metamorphosis at the Mermaid. We'd all meet up at the John Snow — Rupert, Dan, Colin, Tim and Gary. I'd just been at drama school with Mark Rylance — he was ahead of me at RADA, and in his last term, I remember he gave an absolutely incandescent performance in Cabaret, as you'd expect."
Thirty-three years later, Branagh is now one of our greatest theatre and film stars, and back on the London stage leading the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company who are producing a six-play season of plays across the next year. Branagh is himself starring in four of the shows — new productions of The Winter's Tale, Rattigan's Harlequinade, and Osborne's The Entertainer, as well as The Painkiller, that he previously played in his birth home town of Belfast four years ago, and is now reuniting with Rob Brydon to do again. He is also directing a 5th show, reuniting Richard Madden and Lily James, the stars of his recent film version of Cinderella, in the title roles of Romeo and Juliet. The company have also just announced a West End run for Red Velvet, a play that stars Adrian Lester (another RADA alumni) that was previously seen at the Tricycle.
Mark Rylance, meanwhile, is currently just around the corner from him in Farinelli and the King. So RADA's influence is everywhere — and Branagh has himself just been appointed the new president of the celebrated acting school, succeeding the late Richard Attenborough. But what is exciting is that, even as Lester has himself become a big film star and Rylance is about to be seen in Spielberg's new film Bridge of Spies, opposite Tom Hanks, each of them keep returning to their theatrical origins.
So, in Branagh's opening show The Winter's Tale, does Judi Dench, who turns 81 next month. Twenty-seven years ago, Branagh invited Dench to direct him in Much Ado About Nothing onstage, in a touring production that culminated in a season at the West End's Phoenix Theatre, so she is an integral part of his theatrical family. So is Derek Jacobi, who directed him as Hamlet in the same season, and now plays Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
Now they're reinvigorating the West End. "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 that subsequently went to New York, and The Painkiller in Belfast. (He also did Ivanov in the West End for Michael Grandage). "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."
As Michael Billington, chief theatre critic of The Guardian, recently wrote, "Everywhere you look, the commercial sector has woken up to the fact that you have to have a coherent policy and distinct identity. Grandage has done it in the West End. So, too, Jamie Lloyd at the Trafalgar Studios and first Kevin Spacey and now Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic. What we are seeing is not the resurrection of the dusty old actor-manager with the spotlight on a single ego. It is something of far greater significance: the realisation that serious commercial theatre will die unless it can offer continuity, affordability and the heady aroma of a special event."