One of the greatest directors and actors of our time, Kenneth Branagh last graced the West End in 2008. Now he returns with his own season of star-studded plays – and Jo Caird discovers that it has been worth the wait
It’s been seven years since Kenneth Branagh’s last appearance in the West End, when he starred in Ivanov at the Donmar Theatre, directed by Michael Grandage. Now he’s back with his own season of plays, directing and starring alongside leading actors including Dame Judi Dench, Rob Brydon and Lily James.
The new Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company will be resident at the Garrick Theatre for a year to present ‘Plays at the Garrick’, continuing a trend begun by Michael Grandage in 2012 when he started his own season at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
It all kicks off with Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (from 17 Oct; p. 48), in which Branagh stars opposite Dame Judi Dench, as well as co-directing with the American theatre director and choreographer Rob Ashford. Branagh is well used to directing himself in both theatre and film and is particularly acclaimed for his Shakespearean projects, which range from an Oscar-nominated movie version of Henry V in 1989 to an innovative adaptation of Macbeth presented at the Manchester International Festival in 2013.
Running alongside The Winter’s Tale is Harlequinade (from 24 Oct; p. 46), a rarely performed work by 20th-century English playwright Terence Rattigan. The comedy centres on a classical theatre company’s attempt to stage The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet, making it a particularly apt piece to include in the season. Zoë Wanamaker will be appearing in Harlequinade, as well as performing the Rattigan monologue Allon Her Own, which has never been seen in the West End.
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company will square the Shakespeare/Rattigan circle when it presents its own production of Romeo and Juliet next May. The show reunites the leads of Branagh’s blockbuster Cinderella, with Lily James and Richard Madden appearing as the Bard’s star-crossed lovers.
Also on the programme at the Garrick is an adaptation of the classic French farce The Painkiller (from Mar 2016), in which Branagh and Rob Brydon reprise the roles they played at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in 2011. Brydon plays a photographer with a death wish, Branagh is a hit man in a sharp suit, and the results are very funny indeed. John Osborne’s The Entertainer, one of the most important plays of the 20th century, completes the line-up (from 20 Aug 2016), with Branagh starring as Archie Rice, the music-hall star of the title.