Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Sigh No More

I have thought for years that Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh can do no wrong. They are equally at home in comedy, drama, classical and contemporary works, and even tackle musicals when the need arises. This last talent, the ability to sing and dance, comes as news to me, but I'm not all that surprised. I think those Brits can do just about anything when asked. Thompson made a major splash in the West End in the mid-80s in a revival of Me and My Girl, proving her musical chops, and Branagh, perhaps ill-advisedly, turned one of Shakespeare's romances into a movie musical.
Stateside, we don't know either of them for musicals. In fact, for a long while there, we knew them primarily as a team. The two were married for over 15 years, and worked together often during that period. The two of them came to American attention playing husband and wife in the mini-series Fortunes of War, which was broadcast on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre in 1987.

Around that time, Branagh formed his own theatre troupe, the Renaissance Theatre Company, and presented a season of Shakespeare, directed by some of his famous friends such as Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi. The company was made up of close friends and colleagues of Branagh and Thompson, and unlike other British theatrical companies, received no public funds. They had much critical success, and even launched an international repertory tour, but disbanded after only 6 years, when Branagh's film directing career gained traction.

That international tour came to Los Angeles while I was living there, and I saw both productions presented in rep. A Midsummer Night's Dream had Kenneth in the supporting role of Peter Quince, and Emma in the scene-stealing role of Helena. (I must wander onto a side street here. Despite the attention always paid to the actor playing Bottom in Midsummer, I have never seen a production which was NOT stolen by the actress playing the tall, gangly ingenue, Helena. Christine Baranski stole it from William Hurt when Joe Papp presented the show in Central Park, and the hilarious Stephanie Burden did the same a few years ago when DC's Folger Theatre did the play. And naturally, Emma Thompson swiped the show on tour. It's time for people to stop believing the comic tour de force in Midsummer is Bottom; it's Helena.)

Forgive the digression. Running in rep with Midsummer, the Renaissance Theatre Company presented King Lear. Branagh was playing Edgar, and Thompson was completely unrecognizable as the Fool:
Yes, that's Ken in the loincloth, and Emma in whiteface. This is the only production of Lear I've seen in which the death of the Fool made me weep.

These two stage performances, as Helena and the Fool, proved to me that Emma Thompson is one of the finest actresses I have ever seen. And Kenneth Branagh is one of the finest directors out there.

Branagh and Thompson played well together in a variety of projects, including the film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, in which they both starred:

Under Kenneth's direction, Emma Thompson's Beatrice is absolutely luminous. I think there should be a special fund set up to allow Branagh to adapt, direct, and film all Shakespeare's plays.

Since going their separate ways in 1995, the duo continue to have individual success. They both have been to the Oscars more than once; Kenneth has four nominations under his belt, though he has never won, and Emma won the statuette as an actress for Howards End and as a writer for Sense and Sensibility. They both won Emmys: Branagh for a television film called Conspiracy, and Thompson for a hilarious guest shot on Ellen DeGeneres's old sitcom. I just gotta include this clip from that episode, in which Emma plays herself, but with a secret. Well, two secrets. One: she's a lesbian. Two: well, take a peak at this clip (it's short and a scream):

At some point in their careers, both these actors have been accused of shameless self-aggrandizement. Branagh's film version of Hamlet, which he directed and headlined, was virtually uncut, so it ran about 4 hours, and there were those who claimed it was indulgent. I think it's the best filmed Hamlet out there, better than Olivier and Burton and Williamson and Kline and Gibson and Hawke. For a while there, it looked like Branagh was becoming his generation's Olivier, due to his Shakespeare films, but that part of his career was derailed by his disastrous adaptation of Love's Labour's Lost, into which he interpolated famous songs, turning the thing into a musical.
(It's been ten years since that debacle; I wish Ken would get back on that horse, as his films of Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado, and As You Like It are all wonderful.)

As for Emma, she was eviscerated early in her career for her 6-episode sketch comedy TV show, Thompson. We don't think of Emma Thompson as a comedienne along the lines of Tracey Ullman, and I have not seen any full episodes of this series. But several clips are available online, and Thompson has a cult reputation. Our Emma was at Cambridge with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, and co-starred with them in an early series called Alfresco, so she knows her way around sketch comedy. But Thompson bombed with British audiences and critics in 1988, and has never been repeated, despite Emma's subsequent success.

This week's Dance Party comes from that series. Branagh guest starred in about half of the show's episodes (the duo would marry the next year), and I find the clip below to be quite charming. It's not the best work from either of our stars; it's probably a good thing that their careers did not include a lot of singing and dancing. But here they give a glimpse of what may be in their future, and it's a sweet few minutes. Enjoy!

Emma Thompson turned 51 years old yesterday.

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