When Kenneth Branagh First Discovered William Shakespeare

Kenneth Branagh, the director of movies like “Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is best known for bringing the works of William Shakespeare to the silver screen. With movies like “Henry V,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet,” he has succeeded in opening up the works of this famous playwright to new generations of actors and artists. Considering how passionate he is as an actor and filmmaker about Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, I always wondered what his first experiences of reading and performing them was like. He gleefully told us about his introduction to Shakespeare when he visited the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica back in 2011.

Born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Branagh said his family had no interest in Shakespeare, and that there were no books in the house. Then the family relocated to Reading, Berkshire where Branagh said he got bullied a lot. As a result, he withdrew into himself and became fascinated with literature, and he soon found himself developing a love for words. He even recalled buying his very first book, but his father didn’t understand why he was so excited and asked him, “What did you buy that for? Why not just go down to the public library?”

His first exposure to Shakespeare came in a class where everyone read from “The Merchant of Venice.” Branagh remembered being terrified to perform it out loud, and he also freely admitted that he “didn’t understand the language.” But regardless of his fear, he ended up surviving the experience and was soon bitten by the acting bug.

When he did a school production of “Romeo & Juliet,” Branagh recollected how the director played “You Are Everything,” a song sung by Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. When the song was finished, the director told everyone, “The song was about sex, it’s a mating call. Now that you know what ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is about, open up your text and let’s read!”

Through all the yelling and screaming during the rehearsal, Branagh said the play was actually not hard to understand. It came down to this gang hating that gang, of two young people in love, etc. From there, the words of the Bard enthralled him like nothing else, and he has since made vastly entertaining movies which clearly reflect his infinite passion of Shakespeare’s literature.

Kenneth Branagh said that he would like to do more Shakespeare in the future. While he is a number of years off from playing “King Lear,” but I would love to see him adapt another Shakespeare play in the future like “Macbeth” or even “Twelfth Night.” He even portrayed Shakespeare in the 2018 film “All is True” which he also directed. We still have “Death on the Nile,” the sequel to his version of “Murder on the Orient Express” to look forward to, but hopefully he will tackle one of the Bard’s favorite texts sooner rather than later.

John Lennon Lives Again in ‘And Now It’s All This!’

And Now Its All This

In March of 1966, John Lennon was quoted by Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave as saying The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Looking back at this piece of history, I find it hard to disagree as, by then, the whole world seemed to have embraced those four lads from Liverpool as girls were screaming endlessly when they performed in concert and passed out in large numbers. At the same time, religious leaders, not to mention the Ku Klux Klan, came down hard on the band, particularly on John, once this comment was published, and it became one of the main reasons why the band stopped touring altogether.

The subject of whether or not The Beatles were more popular than God is the key point of “And Now It’s All This,” a play written by Trevor Boelter which is now being presented as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival through June 28, 2019. It should be noted that this play is actually the second act of a three-act play Boelter wrote called “Kenwood,” and this act follows Lennon during the years of 1965 to 1966 when The Beatles were at the height of their fame. It focuses on when Lennon made his infamous remark and of the reaction elicited, and we watch as this period in his life comes to inform the peace-loving musician and anti-war activist he eventually became.

When John Lennon (played by David Foy Bauer) first appears, he is reveling in the amazing success The Beatles are having as he gets up close and personal, and we are talking very personal, with Maureen Cleave (Stephanie Greer) during an interview. When he tells her how the band is more popular than Jesus, it really sounds like an offhand remark which he never intended for anyone to take seriously. In a sense, you cannot blame John for saying this as even he points out how we never see screaming teenage girls ripping the clothes off of the Pope. Nevertheless, once Maureen publishes her article, the damage is done and religious figures do nothing to hide their fury.

From there, the play moves ahead to July 1966 when The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein (Spencer Cantrell), is under tremendous stress to calm down the furor over John’s remarks which have resulted in many death threats even as the band is about to go on tour. As beloved as The Beatles were, and still are, there was a time when some despised them quite strongly as their allegiance to Jesus trumped everything else in their lives. Indeed, this makes the play seem timely as those same people continue to defend Jesus based on an all too literal meaning and even in the face of facts.

Anyone who knows Mr. Boelter knows he is as big a fan of The Beatles as I am of Eeyore. Even though “And Now It’s All This” is technically a work of fiction, there is no doubt of how thorough he was in his research of the band and, even more so, of John Lennon’s life. He has been studying the history of this band ever since he was 12, he hosted “Jasper’s Beatle Hour” while a student at Cal Poly, and he even interned on Chris Carter’s “Breakfast with the Beatles” radio show on 95.5 KLOS FM. At some point in the future, I expect him to have his own show on The Beatles Channel on Sirius XM.

What is especially interesting about this play is how it examines the effect his offhand remark had on his life and career as we watch him transition from being a spoiled brat to becoming the peace-loving individual he was destined to become. This transition is made all the more convincing thanks to Bauer’s terrific performance as he inhabits the iconic singer to where he can never be accused of doing just a mere impersonation of him. More importantly, the actor makes us see John as a man instead of as an icon who remains infinitely popular decades after his tragic death.

Directing this play is Matt Duggan, the same man who made the terrific science fiction film “Inverse” and who recently released his first novel called “Ostraca.” With it being part of The Hollywood Fringe Festival, Duggan has to make do with a small theatre with an even smaller stage and a handful of props as do the other shows being performed in this particular venue, so he keeps his focus on the actors and the connection they have together on stage. Not once does he let the energy drop as the action moves from one period of time to another as we listen to news reports of what was going in the world back then such as the Vietnam War. It is perfectly paced and never drags for a second.

Speaking of the actors, they are all outstanding. In addition to Bauer, Stephanie Greer is a standout as Maureen Cleave, a role she originated when this play made its world premiere in England. Greer is an infectious delight as she delivers her lines with precision timing and makes Maureen into an ever so clever character who refuses to be easily intimidated.

Spencer Cantrell is excellent as Brian Epstein as he could have easily played this role for laughs but never does. The actor captures Brian’s exasperated state quite vividly as he struggles to gain a foothold over the controversy which threatens to damage The Beatles’ reputation forever, and its hilarious at times to see him struggle with the most mundane of things. At the same time, he makes us see how tough his job is, and being a manager can at times be a thankless job even though it is an important one.

Even Boelter himself shows up here as Reverend Deluxe, a fire-breathing preacher bent on making John Lennon see that Jesus died for his sins. Heck, he almost steals the show with his inspired performance as he captures the zealous nature of someone so dedicated to God to where they are blissfully ignorant of their own hypocrisy. Just watch as he orders his parishioners to burn all the Beatles memorabilia they have on him even as he invites them to buy any of it left over.

“And Now It’s All This” has been selected as a “Pick of the Fringe” selection and rightfully so. It runs only 50 minutes but still manages to say a lot about John Lennon during its brief running time. It is full of laughs and heartbreaking moments, and I am eager to see where Boelter and Duggan will take the material from here. I caught up with Boelter following this performance, and he did say he is planning to stage the full three-act play in the near future, and I look forward to checking it out when he does. But while this play may act as a teaser for a bigger one, it is a must see even if you are not a fan of The Beatles.

By the way, if you are not a fan of The Beatles, why?

“And Now It’s All This” has its next and final performance on Friday, June 28, 2019 at The Complex Hollywood in The Dorie Theater off of Santa Monica Boulevard. Click here to find out how you can get tickets.