SIR Kenneth Branagh revealed how as an unknown 17-year-old in the 1970s he hitch-hiked alone with a rucksack on a pilgrimage to Stratford.
He was speaking after receiving this year’s Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award – “for outstanding achievement in extending the appreciation and enjoyment of Shakespeare – at the annual Shakespeare Birthday celebrations luncheon.
Sir Kenneth, speaking to an audience of 700 people in the marquee near Holy Trinity Church, said: “I was uncertain in every sense on what lay in the road ahead. For me at that time Stratford was a wonderland.
“I walked around with my jaw open, surreptitiously touching old buildings, trying not to look odd, visiting everything that appeared to have any connection with the town’s favourite son, and yet for all my wanderings, returning time after time after time to the theatre.
“I stared and stared at it from every possible angle, ‘to gape, to dream, to wonder.’ Of course in those prehistoric days before the Internet there was no pre-purchase of tickets. Instead lay the tantalising promise of the returns queue. After some hours on that first afternoon and for the princely sum of £8 gained admission to the Taming of the Shrew.”
Sir Kenneth said he had been shocked after being seated to witness a commotion in the front seats caused by an angry man in the audience who suddenly leapt on stage and started destroying the set before being restrained. It turned out to be the actor Jonathan Pryce and this was the unexpected and unorthodox start of the play.
“The days that followed were golden. Once I’d become a theatre-going veteran going to see Prospero, the Duke of Vienna, (Measure for Measure) and Othello, I worked up the courage to ask the house manager if I could look back-stage.
“I’d been haunting the returns queue every morning. As luck would have it Jonathan Price walked across the stage with some friends of his and I saw a real actor close up for the first time.”
Later the young Branagh gawped back-stage at the detail of the hanging costumes for The Tempest and in The Dirty Duck listened to ‘real’ actors talking and drinking ‘real’ beer.
He remembered an actress in the Taming of the Shrew who only had a tiny part but she deeply impressed him and he jotted down ‘don’t forget this girl’ on the programme. Her name was Juliet Stevenson.
“I left Stratford but I never left Shakespeare. I carried him as a guide, as a saint, forever onward. A mere six years later when the whirligig of time had spun me through drama school and out into the world as a professional actor I had cause to remember the wonder and the wildness of that first pilgrimage – and the memory of how the RSC had started The Shrew with a bang not a whimper and carried it electrically through the evening and the language which flowed from it.
“Here was Shakespeare as a thing in action – modern, violent, messy, wondrous, human. It was an example I took to heart when it came to my own first RSC acting audition. Indeed, I put my whole faith in that very quality of wildness and beauty, humanity and truth. At stake was a place in the great 1984 season and a chance to be in the company of the great Sher, the great Rees; it seemed to me that Hotspur might be the man to help me gain a place in that august company.
“The RSC said ‘yes’ and from that moment, this town, this company, that theatre, offered a stake in me which has been a humbling inspiration in all the many joyous years of Shakespeare which have followed.”
Receiving the Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award, Sir Kenneth followed other illustrious previous Shakespearean
winners including Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Peter Hall, Deme Judi Dench, Sir Donald Sinden and Dame Janet Suzman.
Sir Kenneth Branagh receives the Pragnell Shakespeare Birthday Award. (s)