Kenneth and Friends
Kenneth Branagh has formed a new company called – wait for it – The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company. He will be co-directing (principally with Rob Ashford) who directed Branagh in Macbeth not so long ago and worked with him on his recent film of Cinderella for Disney. Ashford himself, if you did not already know this, is a Tony, Olivier, Emmy, Drama Desk, and Outer Circle Award-winner and multiple nominee for his directing and choreography. The creative team of this company also includes designer Christopher Oram. Branagh will clearly be employing a mixture of interesting established actors and extremely talented young emergent ones and I would advise booking tickets right now. If you’re interested, I’m tempted to say it’s worth the trip even if you’re living abroad . The program is running for a year at London’s Garrick Theatre, so there are lots of chances to see what the buzz is about.
First up in repertory is Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale newly re-imagined (don’t ask me, I dunno what that’s supposed to mean! It’s what it says on the label). I have spotted the fact that Branagh and Ashford are co-directing, which is promising; and the big news is that the role of Paulina is to be played by Judi Dench – a fascinating piece of casting in a pivotal role. Branagh himself plays Leontes. The Tale runs 17 October 2015 to 16 January 2016.
Another inspired piece of anti-ageist casting is that of Derek Jacobi as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, which also has the two stars of Branagh’s recent Cinderella film as the lovers – Lily James and Richard Madden.
Even if you haven’t seen Cinderella, it’s likely you’ve seen these actors; James is also Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, and Madden plays Robb Stark in Game of Thrones. Romeo and Juliet runs from 12 May to 13 August 2016.
In between you can also catch the now-underrated Terence Rattigan’s charming and hilarious Harlequinade, starring Branagh and directed by the multi-talented Ashford (this will be presented in rep with The Winter’s Tale from 17 October to 16 January); and an English adaptation of a classic French farce by Francis Veber called The Painkiller. In this translation, starring Branagh and the inimitable Rob Brydon, the adaptation and direction (already a hit in Belfast) are by Sean Foley. Veber also wrote Le Diner des Cons, adapted by Billy Wilder for the film Buddy Buddy. Essentially, Rob Brydon is being Jack Lemmon and Kenneth Branagh is being Walter Matthau. It runs 5 March to 30 April 2016. Finally, Branagh, who played Olivier so successfully in the film My Week with Marilyn, is undertaking one of the iconic Olivier roles ― Archie Rice in The Entertainer by John Osborne ― directed by Ashford.
What more do you need to know? Both men have done some impressive stage work in the past; both have access to the best actors and theatre professionals in all spheres. I once attended a wonderfully memorable season of Shakespeare plays directed by Branagh back in the late 1980s; I am quite fascinated by this new company and what I take to be its philosophy. The approach seems to me to be very much that of the legendary actor-managers of past renown, harking back to the age of David Garrick himself. How fitting that the season is scheduled for the theatre named after him.
Perhaps the Kenneth Branagh Season will lead to more seasons and more legends. It may not be wildly innovative or profound, but the proof will be in the pudding and it should be wildly entertaining! For tickets: www.branaghtheatre.com
Singing the Words
The Oxford Lieder Festival, founded and run by the charismatic pianist Sholto Kynoch, has announced its 2015 programme (running 16 to 31 October). Kynoch takes a rich, full and multi-layered approach to the artistic direction of this festival; it seems to be stronger than ever this year and to have become a kind of laboratory for exploring the best ways to approach and appreciate art song, whether you’re a performer or an aficionado. It attracts the most renowned of the current crop of singers and accompanists and the programmes are immensely appealing.
Last year the festival scored a triumph with “The Schubert Project”. This year’s theme is the words themselves and how various poets inspired different composers. Starting with a symposium called Words Into Music: Poets, Composers and Song that will run at Wadham College with forays into the Holywell Music Room, the opening recital that evening has the superb mezzo Sarah Connolly working with pianist Graham Johnson to perform songs by Schubert, Brahms and Wolf. Different days will focus on Fauré, Brahms and Berlioz; others on settings of Verlaine, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Heine, Housman, Hardy and the setting of English text, with a symposium on the tradition of performing songs in English translation. There will also be master classes from people like Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles, a strand of Sacred Music performed in various college chapels, and even classes for amateur singers. Singers include Robert Holl, Christoph Pregardien, Anna Stephany, Henk Neven and Toby Spence; while the pianist in residence is Imogen Cooper. There will also be recitals and chamber music. There is an Oxford Lieder YouTube channel that will stream some of the performances. With the beautiful historic city and colleges of Oxford as the setting and a formidable range of exceptionally talented performers, if you love lieder and want to wallow for a day, a weekend or the full two weeks in some amazing live performances, this is an excellent wallow.