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Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Branagh proves his worth

by Norman Miller
BBC News Online

Kenneth Branagh
Branagh directed a West End play in 2001

Kenneth Branagh has made his debut at the National Theatre in David Mamet's play, Edmond. It is his first appearance on the London stage for 11 years.

Twenty three scenes in just over an hour. David Mamet was clearly in a hurry in this early 1980s drama, the energy crackling off each taut vignette as we follow a very bad night in the life of Edmond (Branagh).

Prone to talk too much and too carelessly, Edmond no longer finds either his wife or his life "interesting".

To her amazed fury, he walks out in search of a deeper reality he imagines is waiting in the city for a man willing to open himself up to experience.

But the city devours this stiff white middle-class American ingénue as he shuttles from bar to brothel, a 100% loser whose woes Mamet chronicles with a sharp black humour like a screwball tragedy.

While Mamet has spoken of Edmond as a play about race, Edward Hall's production weaves that into a broader vision of terrible powers of convention.

But Mamet offers a strange solace with a final image of tenderness as potent as it is utterly unexpected.

Branagh steps back onto the London stage with a taut and controlled performance, capturing Edmond's violently shifting moods from the dark humour of the early scenes to the pathos of the final section.

With 30 other actors whirling through the scenes, it is amazing any get the chance to make much impression but Tracy-Ann Oberman as Edmond's wife, Nicola Walker's Glenna and Nonso Anozie as Edmond's cellmate grab their brief opportunity particularly well.

Mamet also finds time amid his trademark quickfire dialogue for some marvellous imagery as his characters struggle with the stresses of trying to understand "fate". Quick, raw and memorable.

Have you seen the play? What did you think?

Send us your views using the form below.

I've never understood the appeal of Branagh, and put the fanfares announcing the various stages of his career down to his extraordinary business sense. "I want to do this -who do I need to write to?". Bland, bland, bland. But in this he gives a really good performance....excellent.
Ben German, UK

This is the worst play my husband and I have seen for a long, long time! This was a series of hackneyed tableaux, peopled by cardboard cut-outs who were as nasty and boring as the marriage the anti-hero Edmond says he has to get out of at the start of the play.

Even Kenneth Branagh couldn't lift this all-too-long short play up out of the dire, misanthropic mood in which it was conceived.

Mind you, we are great fans of David Mamet's work - who could not be awed by the brilliance of Glenngary, Glennross? But in the language of this play - which has as many four-letter words as Jerry Springer, The Opera, yet none of its joy, wit or delight in musical pastiche - this play sucks!
Lee Robinson, UK

I was mesmerised by Branagh's performance. The play chronicled one man's rapid and harrowing descent into madness during one night adrift. He throws off the shackles of convention to find that they were perhaps all that were containing his murderous rage. Excellent.
Ann Kruyer, UK

Branagh's performance is outstanding, but Mamet writes from a singular perspective that handicaps any worth or merit of the play itself. Since it's not a play to enjoy so much as endure, I'm relieved it's short, although it would be interesting to see if Mamet is capable of stretching the material to two hours.

The only downside to casting Branagh is that he attracts audiences which, in part, come to see him rather than the play, and are determined to enjoy themselves, regardless of the base intent of Branagh's character. This seems to result in efforts by small sections of the audience to laugh at ghastly inappropriate moments. I noticed a similar reaction to Brand with Ralph Fiennes. But with such great actors on the stage, a confused and off-key audience is a price worth paying!
Milly Mossop, UK

What a ridiculously pretentious play! Absolutely littered with stereotypes - white male going through mid-life crisis, black pimp/mugger, male rape in jail by a black prisoner - and a script that tries too hard to be clever. Branagh's excellent performance is the only thing that makes it worth watching.
Phil Lee, London

An incredible performance from Branagh and the rest of the cast. In particular the main scene between Branagh and Walker was wonderfully done and utterly shocking. This is not a play to go and see if you are at all squeamish, the friends I went with did not really enjoy it and felt it was over the top.

However, it was a play written to shock and make you ponder - and in that it is a 100% hit. It really made me think about all the restricting conventions we face, and their effects on society. This play is fantastic, I intend to see it again, and not least of all because of the fantastic Olivier Theatre itself.
Kate Stinton, England

I saw the show on press night and felt that Branagh and the cast were still in 'rehearsal mode' and not yet comfortable in front of an audience. However, the pacing was brilliant and the technical design flawless. Found Branagh and the rest of the cast had very distracting, rather mediocre American accents. Save Anozie's cellmate -- spot on. Mamet's script is dated, too. The language and put upon racial tensions feel very early 80s, and this play hasn't aged as well as his magnificent GlenGarryGlenRoss. Still, all criticisms aside enjoyed the energy of the actors and Mamet's always memorable writing.
Kathleen Heil, USA

I did got to say this play primarily as a chance to see Brannagh on stage. He did not disapoint, dark and impressive he dominated the stage. The rest of the cast were excellent as well. I felt differently about the play. The contrived twists, sterotypes and deliberate attempts to shock left me un-moved.
J Bates, England

In answer to an earlier comment that the characters were all stereotyped; black pimp/mugger, white male undergoing mid-life crisis and another review which suggested the play is written from a singular perspective and therefore loses merit - I suggest that these two comments arise from a lack of insight into the material presented.

The use of stereotype in integral to the play, as bigotry cannot exist without it. Once the audience have accepted this, the play does indeed embrace a general vision of the human condition. It does therefore carry a message for all of us, which is delivered with absolute clarity by Mamet's dialogue and Branagh's magnificent performance.
Bill Stevens, UK

I found the play utterly uninteresting and unconvincing. Edmond's journey was in no way believable and the play as a whole lacked any cohesiveness - the various scenes and events seemed to happen more as a list than as connected parts of a story. The performance did not get me to care what happened to any of the characters; I felt neither shocked or interested, just indifferent.

As mentioned elsewhere, the audience had a tendency to laugh at bizarre moments, and seemed to be present more in order to cheer Kenneth Branagh than to follow the story. Although I like the theatre, I found the stage far too large for the performance, which only distanced me further from the storyline.

The review from Mark Lawson and his guest on Radio Four's Front Row was spot on - I for one agreed with their verdict, even if most of the broadsheets do not.
Nathanael Harper, United Kingdom

This production was absolutely mesmerising. The play itself is fascinating but, arguably, flawed. Nevertheless, Branagh's performance and the superb staging, lighting and direction for me erased all doubts. The pace was exhilarating, and the timing beautiful.

The presentation of a seedy, pre-Giuliani New York, and Edmond¿s descent from a repressed suburbanite into a vitriolic, racist, misogynist was shocking at times, and for that reason it would be hard to describe this as a joy to watch, but it is utterly captivating.

Arguments about the quality of the script aside, this is undoubtedly the best production I have seen this year.
Lynne Miles, London

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