I have a go

In the past couple of weeks I spent an awful lot of time thinking about “The Entertainer”, which is the last production of Kenneth Branagh’s season of plays at the Garrick Theatre.


It makes me unreasonably sad. Because it’s, as I just said, the final production of this season, that has given me so much. What am I gonna do with my life (and money) come November 13? In the past year I’ve measured my time in London trips. And I’ll sure need some adjustment once those regular trips cease. But there’s a far profounder reason why “The Entertainer” has me pensive.

I went to see the first preview expecting nothing but greatness from Sir Ken. And while his tap dancing and singing left me in awe (Is there ANYTHING he can’t do?), I felt – do I dare say it? – overall underwhelmed. (Sorry, Ken! You know, I’ll defend you with my dying breath.)

His Archie Rice wasn’t quite as nuanced as I’d expected him to be. His Archie was a bully. Cold, distanced, ugly and verbally abusive. I couldn’t like this guy, no matter how much I wanted to.

Yet, to my surprise, I woke up one following morning from a rather uncomfortable dream, which seemed to harken back to “The Entertainer”; to a moment from the play I hadn’t paid much attention to initially. But apparently my subconsciousness was mulling over the ending of scene eight – where Archie announces his plans to divorce his wife.

Now, separation and divorce are clearly my big childhood traumas. But it wasn’t just this particular scene, which struck a cord. I felt incredibly invested with those people on stage. I cared about them – perhaps more than I ever cared about any character in any play before.

I longed for happy endings for Billy, Jean and Phoebe.

Mostly because they reminded me of my family and myself. Granted, we don’t drink. And we aren’t in show business either. But I recognized them; their aspirations and desires, their anger and desperation.

Watching the Rice family was like looking in a mirror. And I didn’t particularly like what I saw.

Some scenes were unbearable as my family has lived through similar situations many, many times. When Phoebe scolds old Billy for eating her cake, it sounds almost like a regular lunch conversation at my home: ‘I bought that cake, and it cost me thirty shillings, it was for Mick when he comes back, because I want to give something, something I know he’ll like … and now, that bloody greedy old pig – that old pig, as if he hadn’t had enough of everything already – he has to go and get this great fingers into it!

Like the Rice family we’re often shout-y. We’re nasty. We’re ugly to each other. With accusations and threats.

So, here’s the thought, I’ve been pondering; the thought that’s been making me sad beyond measure: If can consciously identify and describe the Rice family as (verbally) abusive and if my family is like the Rice family, does this mean my family is (verbally) abusive, too?

In many ways, we’re at a far better place today. But it’s still difficult and if I confront the cold, hard reality… the answer would probably have to be ‘yes’.
I suppose, it’s an obvious insight that should have occurred to me years ago. But the fact is, the realization was brought about by “The Entertainer”.

The play is a lot to take in. I’m only just beginning to understand its full scope. I’ve seen it twice more since the first preview but while it left me underwhelmed then, I feel overwhelmed by it now.

A lot of this is owed to the strong performances of the cast. And if Kenneth Branagh’s final monologue doesn’t break your heart, you should move in with the Grinch.

“The Entertainer” doesn’t offer solutions. And neither do I know, what to make out of my “catharsis”. But as Jean says in the play: ‘We’ve only got ourselves. Somehow, we’ve got to make a go of it. We’ve only ourselves.’

a winter’s tale.

So, someone (not a professional reviewer, I should note) criticized Kenneth Branagh’s performance in “The Winter’s Tale”. It’s “OTT”, someone said. It’s was an offhanded comment. And I even partially agreed with it (although I would call his acting “campy” not “over the top”). Still, that comment bothered me more than it should have. I even felt a wee personally attacked.

Suddenly, I was confronted with a classic fandom dilemma. I felt (over-)protective over my fandom hero. No space for criticism. 

Yes, it’s no secret: For months I’ve been (too) enthusiastic about Branagh’s season of plays at the Garrick. Surely, I irritated the sh** out of my environment with my constant blabber about #BranaghTheatre. Guilty as charged.

The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company presents: Plays at the Garrick

But how could this someone talk down on him? Talk down on SIR KENNETH BRANAGH, 5 time Academy Award-nominee, (arguably) finest Shakespearean actor of his generation? It really got to me.

Maybe because when I was watching “The Winter’s Tale”, I saw something that others didn’t?

When I saw “The Winter’s Tale”, I saw – more than anything else – a family effort. A creative effort of a family, that – in some weird sense – I belonged to as I’ve been following the foundation of this family for nearly a year. From the early tentative announcements of #BranaghTheatre to the first previews of #BranaghTheatre: I was there – not only virtually but, at times, personally. I saw it grow. And then blossom.

I couldn’t help but feel a bit proud of Bard Branagh for lifting up this endeavor. Everyone in his theatre company enjoyed himself/herself. They clearly loved working together! And by challenging one another, they gave their individual bests.

(I mean, you don’t want to look rubbish when you’re sharing a stage with Dame Judi Dench, right?)

So, I saw a family effort. And that other people failed to see it, bothered me.

Because, here’s another thing: I’m a bit of a creative myself (working in advertising and all that…). And shortly after I’d first seen “The Winter’s Tale”, I thought: Well, this is the kind of troupe, I’d like to work with. It’s not like I don’t value my co-workers. But in my day to day professional life the one thing, I probably miss the most, is the feeling of a creative community that propels and inspires itself. In fact, I really long for it. 

More inspiration, less production. (A terribly uneconomic notion, I realize.)

Kenneth Branagh’s creative family clearly aims to entertain. It wants to give people a good time.

Now, I’m pretty certain, you can do darker, edgier productions of “The Winter’s Tale” than the one that can currently be seen at the Garrick… I’m not a big fan of that. Give me a fluffy show any time! The world’s bleak enough as it is.

Sir Ken’s (and Rob Ashford’s) “Winter’s Tale” doesn’t attempt to send a subversive, message about the evil of our time. On the contrary. It’s refreshingly old-fashioned in that sense. It’s heartwarming – perhaps even on the verge to kitsch.

It appeals to my feminine sensibilities, as Shakespeare would have put it.
And another thing appealed to my feminine sensibilities: meeting Kenneth Branagh at the stage door. To be fair, my friends and I kinda ambushed him. But instead of rushing us off, he made an effort to connect – beyond the usual niceties. 

“Thanks for coming”, he said. But what meant the world to me, was his tight grip on my shoulder, when we quickly took a picture. “Well dude”, I thought, “you’ve really got some energy!” He was in the moment; focusing on us; acknowledging us as individuals instead of treating us like mere empty shells.

Mindfulness, I believe, is the fancy, new-age word for that. Living/being in the moment. It’s also something that a long for. 

Mindfulness, energy, inspiration: all this I want. And all this, in short, I derive from “The Winter’s Tale”. (Not in optimum doses, but I’m getting there.)

So, if you criticize this production (or parts of it), it bothers me. But I’ll still think #BranaghTheatre’s “Winter’s Tale” is a genius piece of art because it does everything a good piece of art is ought to do.

When the hurly-burly is done…

On St. Patrick’s Day 2013 I found myself watching Shakespeare’s ”Much Ado About Nothing“, the film version with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. It was a Sunday. I had just come back from a weekend trip and felt stupid tired. On any other night, I would probably have zapped past. But since there was a super urgent work project that needed finishing up, procrastination had – once again – won the better part of me.

15 minutes into the movie, I was completely mesmerized by the chemistry between Beatrice and Bennedick… and in love with Kenneth Branagh.

Obviously, I had known about him before. Obviously. I mean how couldn’t I? His “Wallander“ being pretty much the only crime-procedural I religiously followed. Back in school my English teacher would rave about him and his movies any chance she got. Now, almost a decade later I started to understand why.

So, on last year’s St. Patrick’s Day I made a vow: I’d try to see Kenneth Branagh on stage – and if I had to sell a kidney.

Little did I know that at this time he was already in preparation for the Manchester International Festival (MIF) – where he’d star in and direct Shakespeare’s Scottish Play (aka „Macbeth“).

Had my Google search been a bit more thorough, I could have known about these things. But I didn’t. (Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.)

Only after tickets had sold out in less than TEN min, I heard about the production.

So, I missed the Scottish Play at the MIF but got (a bit) reconciled by the NT Live broadcast.

By the time of the screening it had been confirmed that the production would move on to New York. And I left the movie theatre thinking: “I *need* to get tickets for this!” (Half a year should be enough time to save up for a trip to the US, right?!)

And so I did. I bought tickets to see the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation in one of the bard’s finest plays. Crazy shit.

I started counting down the days: December. January. February. March. April. May. June 17.

Half way through my countdown one of my lecturers pointed out an event to us: The annual conference of the German Shakespeare Society. Honorary guest in 2014: Nobody less than Sir Kenneth Branagh himself. I was instantly sold. Which meant that in April, I found myself in Weimar – surrounded by a few hundred Shakespeare-know-it-alls.

Frankly, it was rather intimidating. As much as I dig Shakespeare, I’m hardly an expert. So I kept hoping no one would try to have a serious conversation about Billy the Shake with me, as this would have blown my literature student cover and exposed me as a desperate fangirl.

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Sir Ken was made honorary chairman of the Society that day. And there was a lovely panel discussion in which he – among other things – spoke about his work for the Royal Shakespeare Company (Cue: “There’s something wrong in the State of… Dunhill.”).

He was absolutely charming.

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Six weeks till “Macbeth”.

Never did I need a vacation more than this trip to New York. It was simply wonderful being back in the City: Strolling up and down Riverside Park, rushing through Times Square, eating cupcakes at the foot of 30 Rock, just doing NYC things.

When the night of June 17 finally came, I couldn’t have been more excited. I left my friend behind at our hostel saying: “If I don’t come back, I may have died fangirling.”

“Macbeth” was put on at the Park Avenue Armory, a 19th century military facility/social club once used by the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard. The giant building has the look and feel of an old European fortress – only with rooms decorated by Tiffany. Since I’d never before been to the Armory, visiting this place alone was quite an experience.

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The building, as a former military complex, informed the play enormously. It’s THE ideal venue to stage a play about a fierce Scottish soldier, slaughtering his way to the top.

Upon arrival every audience member was assigned to a clan. We all got little wristbands to show our allegiance. Mine read: “Angus”. About 20 minutes before starting time “Clan Angus” was ushered into the main auditorium, the so-called Drill Hall.

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I don’t want to go into much detail about the entire process of being seated, New York Times and Guardian have written all about it. Suffice it to say: It alone was worth all the money.

Monks/priests walked is to the ranks – over a cobblestone path, through a field of mud (real) and puddles of blood (not real). Left and right from us, the three witches lurked. There was fog and mist, a Stonehenge-like structure and aerial music.

It was all quite mystical.

Since I’d seen the play before (albeit in the cinema), I knew what I was in for: an epic battle scene at the beginning, the brutal killing of Duncan, Macbeth growing despotic by the minute, Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, an epic battle scene at the ending. All hail the King of Scotland!

I left the Armory feeling “I never wanna see another production if ‘Macbeth’ ever again”. An opionion shared by many others.

Sir Ken’s take in the Scottish King was… brilliant – for lack of a better word. To me, the way he said “I am Macbeth” during the final battle scene, when he knows his days are counted (Spoiler: Yes, Macbeth dies.), was emblematic for his interpretation of the character. Macbeth: soldier, tyrant but also conflicted human being.

The chemistry Kenneth Branagh shared with Alex Kingston (Lady Macbeth) was amazing! I loved how they did the homecoming scene early in the play: Macbeth eager and uhm… happy to see his wife again after a long and bloody war. Certainly one of my favourite moments of the production. (The scene also sported a shirtless Sir Ken. There might be a connection.)

I’m still impressed/amazed how Branagh over and over again managed create rather intimate moments in a space as vast as the Drill Hall (it’s 55,000 square foot, if you’re wondering). During his monologue in the throne room for example, Kenneth looked up the ranks (which seems to be customary thing with him) and while – from his perspective – he clearly must have stared into the void, it felt like his piercing blue eyes were looking right at me… Eyes. Piercing. Piercing eyes. Blue. So blue.

I saw the play again the very next night (Clan MacDonald!) – and it was even better. All the actors were on top of their game. Everyone was acting his butt off because apparently the show’s producer had been in the audience.

By the time of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”-monologue all I wanted to do was crash the stage and hug and comfort Macbeth/Sir Ken. I sympathized with him so badly. Yup, I sympathized with the bad guy (or as they’re called nowadays “anti-hero”).

Naturally I did *some* stagedooring (uhm, understatement). I was aware that there was only an off-chance to meet Kenneth Branagh after the performance. No illusions about that. But I wanted to have tried at least.

Luckily I befriended two fabulous randomers at the stagedoor. We chatted about all things theatre, about the productions we’d seen and the actors we’d met. Neither of us wanted to leave without being absolute certain that Sir Ken had already left the building. So we waited. For 2,5 hours.

Endurance paid off – at least partly. Because instead of Kenneth Branagh we met Alex Kingston, who was an absolute joy – making sure that all of her fans got signatures and photos. Needless to say, there were quite a few Whovians around.

Turns out: Branagh routinely left the theatre right after the performance, without even taking his make-up of, through one of the Armory’s many back doors. In other words: If you attended the show, there was NO CHANCE of catching him. So I didn’t do any stagedoorig on my second night. But something far better happened.

As I left the Drill Hall, still in enchanted by the back pipe music, I spotted a blonde lady waiting in the lobby. “Huh, she looks like Candice Bergen”, I thought. Two steps closer, I suffered a mini-heart attack. For it was Candice Bergen, hero of my teenage years; inspiration to my journalistic career.

After “The Best Man” in 2012 I thought, I’d never, never see her again. And there she was, only a few feet away from me. It was quite surreal, like I had willed her into existence. ‘Cause strangely enough, I’d been talking and thinking about her in the days previous.

Candice looked fantastic!

Out on the steps of the Armory, I tried to catch my breath, blinking back happy tears and whispering “Only in New York”.

It was a perfect last night in the City and I left New York the next morning heartbroken but reassured: Everything’s possible here.

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Also: Kenneth Branagh. Kenneth Branagh! KENNETH BRANAGH!!