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Exclusive: The Kenneth Branagh season

Published April 16, 2015

After months of speculation, stage and screen legend Kenneth Branagh has announced he, and an incredible line-up of creative talent, will curate a year-long season of must-see theatre at the Garrick Theatre beginning later this year. With a jaw-dropping line-up of actors announced including Judi Dench, Rob Brydon, Lily James, Richard Madden and Branagh himself already revealed, even more surprises are in the offing.

We were honoured to be invited to meet with a brilliantly down to earth, excited Branagh, co-director Rob Ashford and recent Olivier Award-winning designer Christopher Oram to see if we could tempt them into revealing more about the exceptional season and the newly formed Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. Here are the 10 things you need to know now in their words.

1. The Scottish play was where it all began

Branagh and Ashford first co-directed the astonishing 2013 take on Macbeth featuring Oram’s striking design as part of the Manchester International Festival before it transferred to New York last year. And that’s exactly where the idea for this season was born. Here Branagh explains:

“In the course of working on that play we talked a lot about the things that we felt passionate about. I’d certainly wanted to land in a theatre for a while, to have a home where we could do plays that I felt passionately about and with collaborators that felt the same way, who also brought their passions for particular plays. It became clear that Rob was very interested in The Entertainer, Christopher and I have had this long term conversation about The Winter’s Tale, we shared thoughts about things like Harlequinade. So the conversation went on and eventually we ended up in [producer and theatre owner] Nica Burns’ office, and Nica talked about this lovely theatre and being able to come here. So it was that collaboration that brought together these various projects and plays that we’ve managed to find a home for.”

2. Sometimes you create a season around your actors rather than the plays

You certainly do if Dame Judi Dench, with whom Branagh has a 30-year professional relationship, is involved. When curating the season, the inevitable subject of performers they knew who wanted to play certain roles came up – with Branagh tantalisingly promising more in future casting stories – and Dench was a key player in proceedings:

“It’s always an evolving thing [when putting a season together], there are other elements that start to come in… Which actors do you have and who is available and who would like to do it? So, for instance, as passionately as I felt about The Winter’s Tale, having Judi Dench as Paulina suddenly characterises and roots the production.

“There’s always been a conversation with Judi about us working together again. With a career like that, you might think ‘Is there anything left she hasn’t played?’ but I knew that although she had played Hermione and Perdita in a famous production of the play by Trevor [Nunn], at the grand age of 80 being in a play you know so well in a part that you haven’t played… there’s something very exciting about that.”

3. More than 10% of tickets for the entire season will be £15

Having seen the effect that their innovative production of Macbeth had in both drawing new audiences and engaging young people, making the season accessible has been part of their conversations.

“Over 10% of the entire year’s tickets are at £15,” Branagh confirmed, explaining: “We’ve been passionate about ensuring that there are no booking fees if you come by the website or directly to the Garrick Theatre here; the face value of the ticket, at whatever price, is the price you will pay, there is no hard sell on any other stuff, that’s across the board. That’s important.”

4. It’s all about the Yin and Yang  

It’s a common theme for seasons to have a running central idea or message, but for this team, while there is undoubtedly symmetry to be found among the productions – Harlequinade is about a theatre company putting on The Winter’s Tale and Romeo And Juliet for starters – it’s all about a healthy balance of comedy and drama.

Branagh: “We’re enjoying the conversation between these plays. I suppose particularly there is, on one obvious level, an interest in the idea of performance… somewhere in the [season of work is] the world of the theatre itself, a sort of celebration or examination of the theatre… and it’s bound to come out in ways, I’m pleased to say, we can’t predict. It was great also to have Sean [Foley, adapter and director of The Painkiller] involved in this season… [The Painkiller is] a part of a yin and yang of a season that includes a lot of drama as well.”

5. The plays may have been announced, but the season is still evolving…

While the season, which has been two years in the making, has finally been announced today – “People have been quietly keeping this secret for a little while now,” Branagh says with a sense of both excitement and relief that they can now talk about it – there are still plenty of surprises left in store, both for the audience and the creatives with nothing set in stone, as Oram, who will work on all the pieces with the exception of The Painkiller, explains:

“You don’t want to prescribe every single detail of it because the world moves and changes and you build new collaborations as you move on. You’re in a space for a while and certainly once you do one show in here it’ll have a real effect… That’s the privilege of being able to do that, knowing you’ve got work but also being able to gauge it and pace it.”

6. …and parts are still up for grabs

As part of this evolution, full casting is still to be done, with Ashford commenting: “We’ve been brainstorming, but now that we’re here, we want to go forward and get the perfect group of people to do it.” That means, for all you actors out there, the chance to act opposite Branagh and Dench is still on the table. And, in the great historical tradition of acting companies, Ashford and Branagh are passionate about the idea of people acting in more than one play in the season. With the exception of Dench, given she is, as Branagh succinctly puts it, “the busiest woman in the world”.

7. Expect magic

Fresh from directing his “fantastic, hungry” Cinderella starring Lily James and Richard Madden, Branagh is having somewhat of a fairytale moment, hinting he won’t be shying away from this magical realm for their “reimagining” of The Winter’s Tale:

“Having just worked on Cinderella, to come to The Winter’s Tale, which some critics are critical of for its apparent reliance on magic, that element of it is very attractive to me. Maybe that’s just something that’s speaking to my creative heart at this point, but… if Shakespeare thinks fairytales are good enough, we’re not going to argue with him. That’s a little hint at where we’re coming from.”

8. It may be a West End playhouse, but they want you to feel involved in the action

Anyone who sat in a pew for a performance of the trio’s intimate Macbeth will know this is a creative team who don’t shy away from putting the audience right in the centre of the action, and this is the spirit of the Shakespeare they want to bring to the Garrick Theatre.

“One of the things that we love, particularly working on Shakespeare,” Branagh explained, “Is we do want emotionally to come and find the audience, we want to take it to the audience… we want them to feel part of it, [that with] 700 odd seats, you have the chance to feel it and be ringside at these great plays, performed with a directness and an honesty that can be very affecting.

“It’s no secret to suggest that that will be what we’ll be continuing to pursue: the challenge and the thrill that people can see the whites of people’s eyes.”

9. Never say never when it comes to innovative theatre

With their last collaboration featuring mud trenches and transforming a church into a theatre, the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company will continue to push boundaries, even, as Oram says, if they probably won’t be able to add “mud pits” in the stalls.

“There is nothing if not ambition about these two,” Oram said of Branagh and Ashford, “and they do spur each other on. That’s how these things spiral into something extraordinary.”

10. The future of The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company

As three of the most in-demand theatre creatives tie themselves to one space for the year – “It’s more freeing than a burden,” Ashford says, with a glint of excitement in his eye – is this a one-off deal or the start of the next new legendary theatrical company? Over to Branagh, or, if he has his way, you, the public:

“It has to work on some level, certainly creatively, and finances have to stack up, but the idea of future seasons is very, very attractive and compelling. There are all sorts of things to explore like new writing or musical theatre… Part of what we’re doing is also laying some seeds for future seasons, so yes is the answer. But we assume nothing, because the public decides, I think.”

Find out more about dates and casting for the season in our news story here.

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