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Actor, director and all-round knight of the realm Kenneth Branagh returns to the West End this autumn with an intense season of work that’ll stop him helming any more superhero movies until at least 2017. He stars in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ with Judi Dench (October 17-January 16 2016), Terence Rattigan’s ‘Harlequinade’ (October 24-January 13 2016), Francis Veber’s ‘The Painkiller’ with Rob Brydon (March 5 2016-April 30) and John Osborne’s ‘The Entertainer’ (August 20 2016-November 12), plus he directs Lily James and Richard Madden in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (May 12 2016-August 13).
We wait seven years for one Branagh play and now five come along at once – what’s the deal?
‘Well, I spent a long time planning this, plus I did some films and theatre outside of London. But I wanted to find a sort of base where I could put on work I’d been talking about doing with this larger creative family I’ve developed over my career, whether it’s Judi Dench from the early days or Lily James and Richard Madden from “Cinderella”.’
Are you looking forward to being back in our fair city?
‘It’s where I’ve spent the greater part of my life: I feel like a Londoner, I feel like I’m coming home. And I love being in theatres, being there early in the day and ready to go to work.’
You’re starring in four of the plays and directing three of them. Is that not, you know, a bit nuts?
‘You’ve got to take care of yourself and make sure you’re physically fit for it all: this kind of season is a marathon, not a sprint. But this sort of thing is in my DNA, it’s how I came up.’
You’ve directed some pretty surprising films in the last few years – ‘Thor’, ‘Jack Ryan’ – but this season is old-school Branagh: ‘The Painkiller’ is the only play under 50. Are you comfortable with that?
‘I’m happy with this season. But I’d definitely like to try and understand how to develop new work, it’s something I don’t really have experience of. And I’d like to develop a new musical.’
People always compare you to Laurence Olivier. Did you have any second thoughts about taking on ‘The Entertainer’, the 1957 play that made him cool again?
‘If the work was great for Laurence Olivier, it’ll be great for other actors. Other people will come and say they preferred Olivier’s or Robert Lindsay’s “Entertainer” to mine, and I don’t have a problem with that. You can’t play a role and believe you’ll be better than every other actor who’s done it.’
‘The Winter’s Tale’ contains history’s most notorious stage direction: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. Have you decided what you’re doing about that one?
[Laughs] ‘That is one of the things [co-director] Rob [Ashford] and I have discussed every few weeks for the last two years. We draw images, we come up with magic tricks, we talk about stage machinery: it has occupied our thoughts for two full calendar years and we’re still not there.’
Kenneth Branagh kicks off his return to the London stage with ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at the Garrick Theatre, Oct 17 2015-Jan 16 2016.