Exclusive! Kenneth Branagh: Shakespeare’s Truth is Subjective

May 15, 2019
Our in depth chat with the actor born to play the Bard, which he does in All is True, written by Ben Elton and directed by Branagh.

David Mitchell plays Shakespeare on Ben Elton’s British sitcom Upstart Crow, so who did you play when you were a guest on it?

I first played a disguised and annoying passenger traveling by coach with Shakespeare, who is obsessed and dissatisfied with the transport of the time. Another time, we played with Dickens’ Christmas Carol story, and I was sort of the Ghost of Christmas Future, trying to show Shakespeare the error of his ways.

Did you think “Someday I would like to play Shakespeare”? Was that a goal of yours?

No. I had enjoyed very much the rompish presentations of him in various entertainments,  including spectacularly Shakespeare in Love. But in a way Shakespeare the man wasn’t really available to us, so I didn’t give much thought to playing him.  As the years went on, I got to be in more mature plays, including The Winter’s Tale.  One of the first things I did when playing Leontes, who loses his young son in that play – the sense of loss is so powerful and so personal – was to investigate Shakespeare’s own relationship with his son, Hamnet, who died very young.  And then I looked at other accounts of the loss of a child. There’s a very explicit one in King John, and it’s referred to in other Shakespeare plays.

In the film’s press notes, you are quoted about how in Shakespeare’s plays there are many references to kids dying.

Yes, and it seems to occur more in his later plays, the ones he wrote before he retired. He was writing more about that subject. Also, he seems to have used magic more in his later plays, as if he was desperate to provide happy endings in his plays or in his own life.

In theater, particularly Shakespeare, actors play characters of all ages but, having played the twenty-eight-year-old king in Henry V when you were twenty-eight yourself, do you find it odd that in All Is True you were…

…older than Shakespeare was when he passed away. Yes it is.

He was only 52 when he died, and he retired a few years before then, so it’s amazing that he wrote all those plays and poetry in so few years.

It felt like there was a great big unanswered question: Why did this man at the height of his powers retire and return home?

Because of the fire that destroyed the Globe Theater?

The fire happened twenty years into his life as a playwright in London. In those years, he’d dealt with many things, such as falling in and out of royal favour, the plague, other fires, and having to move the entire theater, which was done in one night, across the river when the laws changed. I could well imagine he was exhausted. And I could well imagine that home meant something to him. He could have retired at the height of his powers in London and been celebrated. Instead, he went back to a small market town and to a marriage and family that he’d been absent from. That is a dramatic scenario I found very compelling.

In the movie, Shakespeare is approached by a stranger – who represents all the critics and idolising writers who pestered him through the years – and he reluctantly answers all his questions except, “Why did you stop writing?” He is asking the unanswerable question you are talking about. How do you think Shakespeare might have responded?

I said before how he started to use magic as an answer to the endings of his plays. I wonder if he found that ultimately unsatisfying. The last play that we believe he wrote on his own, just before Henry VIII, was The Tempest, in which Prospero says, “I am laying down my art. Our revels are now ended and these our actors… are disappeared into thin air… We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is ended with sleep.” I think he might well have been spent. He might also have known that it was time to resolve things at home. He goes back and he fesses up. He goes back maybe to say, “Hometown boy, what about a cheer? If you’re not going to give it to me, I’m buying a coat of arms that represents that cheer. In a way, I admire whatever would be the instinct to say, “I’m going back to think and to look and to listen. I’m not going to write plays, I’m going to start a garden for my dead son where creativity is possible but my experience is not good as when I wrote.” My belief is that he was coming back to accept or face up to, not necessarily happily or easily, a number of responsibilities. I am drawn to the idea that he required closure with the town. And with his home. Remember that he left there with something of a cloud hanging over him. He was 18. He had pretty much a shotgun wedding. He married a pregnant woman eight years older than him who couldn’t read or write. His own father was bankrupt. And now when he finally comes back, there are sexual scandals involving both of his daughters. Trying to settle the Shakespeare family name in Stratford would be motivation for a man like him to assert himself and try to rewrite the story.

So the question is: do you think he planned on never writing plays or poetry after he got home?

I’m drawn to the idea that he was spent and that it was time to be creative in a different way. That’s why we put him in the garden. He’s a man who mentions a hundred and forty different species of plant flora and fauna in his plays, and refers to them about 800 or 900 times. I don’t know that there was any evidence that he was any good at gardening, but I think he was interested in it.

His wife Anne is a better gardener, he admits.

Yes, she displays her own kind of creativity.

I know you’ve seen films like this in which a detective or other writer goes on holiday and ends up having to solve a mystery. Hercule Poirot [who Branagh played in Murder on the Orient Express and will again play in 2020’s Poirot: Death on the Nile] did this very thing. So does this film fit into that genre?

I think it does to some extent. He goes back to Stratford expecting a triumphant or heroic homecoming. But great achievers, male and female, may discover that when they get back to their own kitchen table, their own families are less impressed by them than the world itself.

He is able to solve a mystery, though, in the cemetery, regarding the death of his son.

We wanted to do two things. One was for us to decide the degree to which Shakespeare’s resolution to the loss of a child, from an emotional point of view, would be necessary for us to convey. Second, given the facts we know, which is that Hamnet’s name was placed in the Paris Register after his death – at a time when very few infant deaths outside the normal, established pattern, were recorded. We then made a big leap as to imagine how and why that might have happened.

The title of the movie, which was the original title of Henry VIII, of course, state a ridiculous assumption. The words true and truth are sprinkled throughout the script. Perhaps in response to the title, Shakespeare’s daughter Judith says, “Nothing is true.” In Shakespeare’s conversation with Southampton, we hear, “It’s not flattery, it’s truth.” Speaking to that stranger, Shakespeare explains that he was able to express “all is true” in his plays by using his imagination and searching out answers to questions about humanity and the soul. There are even his statements about his father, who he claims was a thief.  Was he really a thief or a businessman?

It depends on how you look at it. They said he was lending money and that usury was a crime. But really, he was as much pilloried for things like putting his manure in the wrong place. He was snitched on by one of the locals. It was a hotbed of intrigue.

In regard to his father, Shakespeare deliberately lies about him being a thief, even though that makes his own family seem less reputable. In regard to his son, he holds on to the untruth told to him by his family. What I find most interesting in your film is that your Shakespeare based all his inspiration for his plays on that untruth, a falsehood. He’s blindsided when he learns he has always had a wrong view of his son and that it was actually the neglected Judith with the writing talent. He doesn’t know the truth and doesn’t want to know it.

Yeah, I think that is part of his becoming detective in his own life. The scales drop and he has to start seeing things from the perspective his self-imposed retirement gives him.

Obviously you and Ben Elton did a lot of speculation regarding what happened in Shakespeare’s final few years in Stratford-upon-Avon, but in your film do facts equal truth?

Well, we started with facts and then we produced a fiction. And it’s a fiction that I suppose tries to acknowledge that truth, such as it exists in the film, is subjective. So, what Anne and Judith know about how Hamnet’s life ended and the reasons why it ended as it did, are from their different perspectives, all true. There is the idea that each person’s voice needs to be heard by Shakespeare even if he doesn’t accept what is said. And most provocatively, Judith, someone who has always been disempowered by her inability to read or write but clearly has an imagination as fertile as her father’s, unleashes a torrent of her truth directed at him.

Using All Is True as the title for the play Shakespeare is believed to have co-authored, was surely an immense provocation and a tease to his audience. He had no more idea what went on behind the corridors of power during the reign of Henry the 8th than he knew what happened across his other eight plays that he wrote about the English monarchy. Or indeed, what was true when he read Plutarch and was inspired to write his Roman plays; or when he read Holinshed’s Chronicles, his inspiration for a number of his plays [including Macbeth].  No doubt his titles elsewhere offer that provocation: Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or What You Will. There was a kind of an acknowledgement that truth is subjective.

In the early 1990s, I wrote this about your film of Henry V: “Every line is delivered by the characters with the intention of having an impact on the characters spoken to. No words are wasted.”  Do you see that in this film too?

We tried to have that. We reduced small talk and indeed have characters happy not to say anything, which can of course load up the tension. As actors, we waited while the other person spoke, listening. It’s quite a silent film in the early part of it. We wanted partly to suggest that’s how much quieter the country is than London. There’s kind of an angry silence that is present and has to be listened to.

Did you like playing those moments when the greatest wordsmith in the world is at a loss for words?

I did. An audience will bring their sense of who Shakespeare was into the theatre. Even if people know little about him, they will see him sitting there and think how he is the master of words who has written all these famous plays. It was a conscious decision to have him not always have the words to fit the occasion. He’s written lots and yet he doesn’t say much. It’s my observation of artists that as they proceed in their work, the ones who are the best do less and less and less. Things are refined. More is achieved by less, whether it’s the strokes of a painter or the number of words of a playwright, they are inclined to do less than they once did, including talking as much. As you were getting at, words have potency, and these are people who are aware of the value of words. So, Shakespeare tries to speak carefully and tries to listen and consider what is being said before responding. I think what you wrote is accurate. Words are important and the characters want what they say to have an impact, so there is not much small talk from any of them really. If there’s an attempt at insignificant or inconsequential conversation, people like Judi Dench’s Anne just knock it back. They cut right across it. They won’t allow fiddle-faddle. I imagine that you’re right, that Shakespeare says words in this film that are not only potent but also are very important to him.

You mentioned Judi Dench, whom you’ve worked with many many times in film and theater. I’m curious if the two of you discussed the scene at the bedroom door the first night after his return. Anne tells him to go to sleep in the guest room because he is like a guest in the house. That is a remarkable request for a wife to say to her husband in those days, I would imagine.

Judi and I don’t talk much about things at this stage, after years of working together. She will occasionally ask a question. However, she was very strongly in sync with Anne and I remember when we did the scene where she confronts Will about the potential arrival of Southampton in the wake of the scandal Shakespeare’s sonnets to him caused years ago.

Anne implies her husband shouldn’t be worried about his reputation if he meets with Southampton, but hers.

Right. Judi was already there on set when I showed up, which was quite unusual. And she was pacing. She was seething on Anne’s behalf. She felt, I think, very personally that Anne’s feeling of indignity was huge and justified, and that it was important that she get to say it. I felt a personal connection to her character from Judi especially, but I also felt it from Kathryn Wilder playing Judith. They had a sense of responsibility to these women who hadn’t been given a voice before. Judi was very conscious of wanting to have what Anne said be very clearly heard.

I read that you have worked with Judi Dench about eleven times, but I was surprised to also read that you had never worked with Ian McKellen before he played the Earl of Southampton in this.

We had spoken over the years. He had come and seen me in many things, as a great supporter of young actors. He had been in places you really wouldn’t expect Ian McKellen to be such as showing up at a matinee of As You Like It in Birmingham. I asked him to be in Henry V and he said no. Since then he said that decision was a disaster for him because after that Derek Jacobi’s nicked all the good parts.

I’ve never seen a scene like the one between Shakespeare and Southampton before, with the two men sitting by a fire and talking at great length about their feelings for one another. Have you ever seen a scene like that?

No. I was really thrown and excited when Ben presented it to me. It is the only scene in the movie that we shot with two cameras at the same time. We did that so it would be a live event each time and the interplay of listening and possible interruption would be as important as each individual’s utterances.

I disagree with something in the press notes: “For Will, it’s romantic love,” says Branagh, “For Southampton it’s the love that has to do with his unique and deep appreciation of who Shakespeare is as an artist.” I would agree with you except Southampton turns around before he departs and repeats Shakespeare’s long-ago sonnet to him. And I think that’s code for, “I am attracted to you, too.”

I agree, it’s code for the love that dare not speak its name. It’s evidenced to be that because he does know it by heart, he can quote it back. So it was important to Southampton, and on a cruder level, it’s their song, you might say. But it can’t happen in all the ways that Shakespeare knew through writing regularly about unrequited love. So there is the fact, bluntly put by Southampton elsewhere in the scene, “You’re a peasant. This is never going to happen. I’m a lord.” It’s never going to happen socially, but spiritually it might already have happened. It’s poignant and sad that it can go no further.

I love how you shot Southampton in close up with the blonde hair and lovely face and you can actually see how beautiful he was as a young man when Shakespeare met him.

The specter of him. When I was probably 15 or 16, I was given the great gift of old back copies of Plays and Players magazine and one of the first ones I looked at was of Ian McKellen in 1969. At 30, he was playing Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II at the Edinburgh Festival and with his hands up, he used a very strong gesture in it that was so beautiful, so unbelievably beautiful. As he sat there across from me when we filmed that scene I was reminded of it.

Late in the movie, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson have a chat about the state of their lives. It was Jonson who famously said that Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time.” Was Jonson just talking about Shakespeare’s writing or also the man?

I think both, because Shakespeare’s gift was to place his person and his soul in his work. He was the raw psychological material for his own plays, you might argue. So along with the plays surviving – with their stories and their fun and their comedy and their excitement and their thrills – there are also, at the heart of it, the observations of a real living, breathing human being who was provocative and teasing – just like the title of the movie.

All is True is in cinemas now

Read our All is True review

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