Report: ‘Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh on Stage and Screen’ – exhibition and Q&A

Guest post by Cynthia Martin.

As part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations in Belfast, the Queen’s Film Theatre is honouring Sir Kenneth Branagh’s work with an exhibition which chronicles his prolific career as both Shakespearean actor and director.  The display features an array of movie stills, photographs, movie posters, promotional postcards, and theatre programmes from Branagh’s early beginnings to today (complements of the Branagh Collection, located in the Special Collections & Archives of Queen’s University Belfast). An eclectic collage of rare artefacts, this exhibition will tour the island, as Ireland celebrates Branagh’s contribution to Shakespeare appreciation.

The exhibition begins with a large triptych, designed to detail Branagh’s very distinctive and rich work in Shakespeare adaptation throughout the past three decades. Informative yet concise, this poster presents visitors with an organised contextualization of the coming attractions for optimal experience and engagement.

Branagh Hamlet

Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

The production stills of Branagh’s Hamlet and Henry V (as well as a black-and-white offstage photograph from the set of Much Ado About Nothing) especially capture the careful thought and conscientiousness behind every scene Branagh has directed. As film is a medium which perpetually moves forward, a production still offers a visual pause to the viewer, affording her/him the opportunity to reflect on all the intricate details of a split second in the performance. The still of Branagh as he is about to begin Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy especially conjures the dichotomous emotional conflict between meditative deliberation and fierce urgency.

Also included in this exhibition are theatre programmes from Branagh’s earlier career with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Henry V by the RSC at Barbican Theatre in 1984 and Hamlet by the RSC at Stratford in 1993). A framed theatre poster from Branagh’s performance as Richard III in 2002 additionally joins the wall amongst production stills and film posters. Aiming to focus also on Branagh’s theatre legacy, these artefacts inspire viewers to contemplate the media translation of Shakespeare from page to stage to screen, and to admire Branagh’s seemingly effortless flexibility between film and theatre productions.

Branagh Much Ado

Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

However, it is perhaps his presence on Time’s front page in 1989 which best demonstrates the extent to which Branagh has contributed to the integration of Shakespeare into modern cinematic culture. Often praised for the accessibility of his Shakespeare productions to audiences, Branagh juggles both high and pop art cultures with impressive dexterity. As Branagh was nominated for two Oscars for his Henry V (Best Actor and Best Director), this magazine cover brings the viewer back to the time when this Belfastite first achieved global stardom.

The launch of the Branagh exhibition on the 7th of May of this year in conjunction with the Irish Renaissance Seminar held at Queen’s University, Belfast, included a lovely reception with wine and hors d’oeuvres. A gracious introduction by Professor Mark Thornton Burnett of Queen’s University, Belfast truly highlighted Branagh’s phenomenal contribution to Shakespeare film, theatre, and adaptation studies. I would recommend this exhibition to anyone with a deep interest in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, and am pleased to inform fans that these artefacts will be accessible to various regions across Ireland this year.

In conjunction with this exhibition, the QFT also arranged a Q&A session with Sir Kenneth Branagh himself for the 27th of May. Led by Adrian Wooton, CEO of Film London and the British Film Commission, this event served as a special introduction to a showing of Branagh’s 1989 Henry V, an introduction which was also transmitted live to over 70 cinemas across the UK.

Wooton mainly covered Branagh’s impressive and action-packed career, from Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006), to very recent, non-Shakespearean work, such as Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2015). Given that Branagh had mentioned that his interest in Shakespeare began with a passion for his native Irish language, it was a shame that Wooton did not include Branagh’s The Magical Flute (2006) in this discussion, as the obvious connections amongst poetic language, Shakespeare, and music would have naturally led to an engaging dialogue on the profound, yet simple magic of sound.

Branagh As-you-like-it - finale

Branagh’s As You Like It (2006) – finale scene

Although Wooton’s questions themselves were quite predictable and unoriginal (indeed, one got the sense that Branagh had answered these same questions a million times before), one could not object to the sheer delight of simply being in Branagh’s charming and enchanting presence. Moreover, a pre-selected batch of Twitter questions from fans definitely added a more personal and unique element to the discussion. One Twitter user who had a particularly keen sense of humour asked if, from a director’s perspective, Branagh found himself difficult to direct, to which the audience and Branagh responded with authentic, unbridled chuckles. Overall, Branagh’s personal introduction to his Henry V, the film which catapulted his career as Shakespearean actor and director in his home-town, contributed the perfect piece to the Shakespeare 400 celebrations.

Guest post: Cynthia May Martin is a PhD student in English Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast.

 

The “Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh on Stage and Screen” exhibition will tour to the following venues and more locations will be announced in due course:

Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast: 26 April-31 May

  • Irish Film Institute, Dublin: 02-30 June
  • LexIcon Dun Laoghaire: 1 July – 13 August
  • NUI Galway: 15-26 August
  • Linen Hall Library, Belfast: 03-15 October
  • NUI Maynooth: 17-25 October
  • Royal Irish Academy, Dublin: 26 October-02 December

For further details, see the British Council webpage on “Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh”.

Several of Branagh’s Shakespeare films will be screened at the IFI, Dublin, this June – see the “Shakespeare Lives on Film” tour.

For information on the British Council’s “Shakespeare Lives Across the Island of Ireland: Conversations and Celebrations” programme see the British Council – Ireland ‘Shakespeare Lives’ webpage.

 

 

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