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Kenneth Branagh: Three decades into a career filled with Shakespeare I'm finally playing him

Belfast-born actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh has played many great Shakespeare roles, but now he's stepping into the shoes of the man himself. He talks to Laura Harding about exploring the later years of his life and facing off with Dame Judi Dench

A bard’s tale: Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare and Lydia Wilson as Susanna Hall in All is True
A bard’s tale: Kenneth Branagh as William Shakespeare and Lydia Wilson as Susanna Hall in All is True

For Sir Kenneth Branagh, it seems all roads lead to and from Shakespeare. Few actors of his fame have devoted so much of their life to the Bard's work, so it was perhaps inevitable that one day he would play the man himself.

Now, the time has come, in his new film All Is True, which he also directed.

"There has always been a fascination," he says, while leaning forward earnestly in an armchair.

"I have always read books about him, about alternative theories, and so 35 years or something into a career that has dealt a great deal with him, I'm playing him."

During that 35-year run, the 58-year-old has directed and starred in numerous film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, including Henry V, for which he was nominated for best actor and best director Oscars, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It and countless more on stage, including Twelfth Night and Macbeth.

But rather than playing him in his heyday, when he was a young man at the height of his powers, the film focuses on the last years of his life after a fire destroys the Globe Theatre and he returns to Stratford-upon-Avon.

"It felt particularly that the last three years of his life were relatively unexplored, at least in film," Sir Kenneth says.

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"When researching that, there was a responsibility, given that we were never going to find out everything that really happened.

"We were going to have to take what you might call a Shakespearean approach.

"He took facts from the lives of the great, from Julius Caesar to kings of England, and he filled in the gaps with imaginative speculation, so that is intimidating, but it is also an exciting creative departure point."

Does his interest in alternative theories include the idea that Shakespeare might not have penned all the plays that bear his name, as perpetuated by actors such as Sir Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacobi?

"For me, it is all interesting," the actor replies. "All debate and all speculation is interesting, but I love actually making the man from Stratford the starting point, because we do have information in the public record about that.

"You can go visit a house that he lived in and you can go see where he was born, so, for me, this process was about returning to that source."

And while that line might make the film sound like a classic 'great man' biopic, the story takes an unexpected turn when it explores Shakespeare's strained relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway, here played by Dame Judi Dench, and with his two daughters.

"They are entirely unused to him being there regularly," Branagh says. "And now, in the context of life in Stratford-upon-Avon, he was the returning hero, a massive celebrity coming back into their lives, the lives that had established themselves without him."

It's a timely focus on women largely unexplored in history, women who lived in the shadow of a famous man.

"There are some incredibly powerful women in Shakespeare," Branagh says. "We started with the character Paulina in The Winter's Tale, who was voted by actors as their favourite female character in Shakespeare.

"It came from her. She speaks truth to power, she is passionate, she is intelligent.

"Judi Dench played her in a production that we did, and she was really a departure point for a character like Anne Hathaway. They stay married over a long period of time. She's older than him at a time when that wasn't so common - it never is, perhaps.

"And so she was the lead for what we chose to assume must have been a very powerful and influential female voice inside that household.

"That extended out to his daughters, Judith and Susanna, in their different ways.

"The biggest question in this was, what would it be like for a man who has been away for 20 years, become the most famous writer of the age, to return to his hometown to those unanswered questions of, 'Where were you? How are you our father and our husband in this way?'"

Many of the early scenes between him and Dench are bristling with tension, anger and unspoken resentment, and even though the pair have a working relationship that goes back decades, Branagh was anxious to be on top form when they went toe-to-toe.

"There was an extra level of preparation on every single level, absolutely no doubt," he says.

"That would not necessarily be the case with every actor you work with, but you know that Judi Dench will always be there.

"The moment if you say 'It's Judi's call', she will walk in there and then and be ready to go.

"We didn't rehearse those scenes. We talked about them, but she and Ian McKellen (who plays the Earl Of Southampton) are what Clint Eastwood once described as 'fast start-up actors'.

"You can't warm up with Judi Dench and you can't warm up with Ian McKellen; you will only see their acting exhaust fumes in the distance, over the horizon of triumph. So, I had to learn the lines earlier, longer, be ready, have answers ready if they had questions, but also listen to them because they have plenty of answers themselves.

"It's a joy to be with people like that.

"The cliche is you play tennis with people who are better than you and it sharpens you up, and that is what I found."

All Is True is in cinemas now

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