In the Footsteps of Laurence Olivier: ‘Macbeth’ Finds Kenneth Branagh Back on the Master’s Path

Kenneth Branagh in 'Macbeth.' (Photo by Johan Persson)

Kenneth Branagh in ‘Macbeth.’ (Photo by Johan Persson)

A few years ago, when Kenneth Branagh was chosen to play Laurence Olivier in the 2011 film My Week With Marilyn, he was cast not by divine right but by default, being just about the only actor around not terrorized by taking on the role. He played Olivier to Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe at the time, in 1957, when the two actors were chaotically shooting The Prince and the Showgirl, the film version of a Terence Rattigan play Olivier had done onstage with his wife, Vivien Leigh. Unsurprisingly, Sir Kenneth played Sir Laurence to an Oscar-nominated hilt.

“I was circumspect when it came up, because I wanted to feel that the script loved these people—and not necessarily in a hagiographic way,” Mr. Branagh told the Observer in a recent interview. “They could be there, warts and all, as long as somehow it acknowledged how bloody marvelous they were at what they did. I felt that, in a strange way—in the way that one’s name has been linked to his in the past—that it was such an obvious thing to do that it was a dangerous thing, and I liked the danger of it. I liked the fact that, neither sounding nor looking like him very much, there would be a great big leap to take there but that the physical process of doing that would be fascinating.”

For Mr. Branagh, playing Olivier was, in a way, the natural outcome to playing so many roles Olivier had taken on—Shakespearean roles. In 1984, Mr. Branagh triumphed at the Royal Shakespeare Company in a role Olivier owned, Henry V. Five years later, he filmed it, winning Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director. (Olivier had been up for Best Actor and Best Picture for his morale-boosting Henry V of 1946.) In 1996, he remade Olivier’s Oscar winner, Hamlet, and came away with an Oscar nomination for his (four-hour) adaptation. A year earlier came Othello. Rather than blacken himself up as Olivier had in 1965 (still the only Caucasian to be Oscar-nominated for a black role), Mr. Branagh opted instead to play Iago to Laurence Fishburne’s Othello. His last stage Shakespeare, in 2002, was Olivier’s 1956 Oscar-contender role, Richard III.

Last summer, for two weeks, Mr. Branagh got back on the Shakespeare/Olivier track with a ferociously well-received Macbeth, which he co-directed with Rob Ashford, the Tony-winning choreographer, in a deconsecrated 19th-century church in the Ancoats mill district of Manchester. Thanks to Alex Poots, who, when he is not running the Manchester International Festival, is the artistic director of New York’s Park Avenue Armory, the two men are restaging their robust rendition at the Armory, from May 31 to June 22.

“This is a play that’s been by my side since I was about 14,” Mr. Branagh said. “I’ve seen it many, many times, and it took a long time to come around to the idea of how, and when, one might approach it. Last year, it came together. Our goal was to do the play as well as we could at the festival, but as we began to understand more and more about the play and our production, the chance to take it somewhere that was as dynamic for the play as the church we’d just played became very exciting.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Macbeth is the first acting Mr. Branagh has ever done in New York. In the six years of their marriage, he and his first wife, Emma Thompson, did two Shakespeares, both on screen (Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing). The Oliviers, in their twenties, never did a Shakespearean film, although they came close with Macbeth, having survived two stage versions of it.

“Vivien Leigh teased Olivier about his first Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1937,” said Mr. Branagh. “She thought he was excessively made up and said, ‘When I watched the first scene, I saw first Larry’s makeup came on, then Banquo, then Larry came on.’ When he reprised it to her Lady Macbeth at Stratford in 1955, Kenneth Tynan wrote he was quite sublime. And, of course, with his track record, people fully expected Olivier to make the film, but the story of him not making the film is almost a movie in itself. It was a great personal distress for him, always, that it didn’t happen.

“He had written a screenplay of Macbeth, and you can see that he absolutely understands how the piece works in the theater. It’s a very particular view of the play, but it’s fantastically well understood and realized. I, for one, would have been thrilled to see it, but it’s also a wonderful thing to imagine both of them doing it.”

The Macbeth that Messrs. Ashford and Branagh are installing at the Armory was praised in Manchester for its “cinematic fluidity.” It reminded one critic of “the gruesome toil of war” Mr. Branagh captured in Henry V. The play begins with claps of thunder and clashes of swords, in full battle mode as a cast of more than 25 flails away at each other in a driving rainstorm. The emphasis is on action, and unseen scenes done off-stage or are just reported—say, Macbeth’s murdering of King Duncan to get to the throne—are bloodily addressed onstage, graphically underlining the cruelty of the times.

Among the “many, many” Macbeth stagings Mr. Branagh has seen is the famously bad one by Peter O’Toole. “I was 19, and it was a catastrophic disaster,” he recalled. “Most of the actors in British Equity were in the audience that night, and all have different stories to tell of what sometimes was brilliant and other times was a bloodbath. It was riveting to watch. I knew something amazing was happening. And there’s an absolute steal of one of O’Toole’s readings in our production. Of course, he was a genius, but on that evening in that performance, he was wayward—yet he had one flash of absolute greatness to which I have no shame in saying I tried to copy in my performance. There’s a tiny homage to him and to a great many other actors in the performance.”

Another thing happened when Mr. Branagh was 18. He found himself cast in a role he was woefully too young for—Chebutykin in Chekhov’s Three Sisters—so he wrote his idol for advice, his only brush with the great man. “I got his address out of Who’s Who in the Theater and said, ‘Dear Sir Laurence, Any ideas on how to play this part, which you do magnificently and I’m so ill-equipped for.’

“To my amazement, he wrote back to say, ‘I don’t really have any specific ideas. It’s something you must work out for yourself. My advice is to have a bash at it and hope for the best.’ I bore that advice in mind when I had to play him. I thought, ‘Let’s not get worried about walking in the footsteps and shadows of giants. Let’s just do it.’”

This seems to have worked out quite well for Mr. Branagh. As Michael Billington, the drama critic for The Guardian, said of Macbeth: “What I admire about Branagh is that he is not afraid to do a spot of old-fashioned acting. The highest compliment I can pay him is that, at times, he evoked golden memories of Olivier in the role.”