IT'S terrifying,'' Kenneth Branagh, a 24-year-old British actor, says of his current acclaim. ``As far as I'm concerned, Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson are names one doesn't mention in the company of mine.'' Many have disagreed. Insiders, in fact, are predicting a rarefied place for this exceptionally talented young man. And in a country renowned for its restraint, such predictions should not be taken lightly. Indeed, after Mr. Branagh's recent performance in the title role of ``Henry V'' with Britain's most famous drama troupe, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), one long-established London critic went on record as saying he had never been so moved by a portrayal of the warring king -- not even Lawrence O livier's.
Branagh (pronounced ``branna'') is clearly no flash in BRANAGHBRANAGH the pan. Despite being in the business only four years, he has behind him a series of rapid-fire successes unparalleled by any British actor of his generation. His rise began upon leaving Britain's top drama school (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) in 1981, taking with him the coveted Bancroft Gold Medal; his portrayal of ``Hamlet'' was said to have been the finest in memory. Shortly thereafter, he landed the lead in the West End smash hit ``Another Country,'' was promptly proclaimed British theater's Most Promising Newcomer of 1982, and he went on to star in a much-lauded drama trilogy for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Plummier TV parts followed, but Branagh was itching to return to the stage. So, at the tender age of 22, he precociously produced and financed his own one-man show: a premi`ere dramatic rendering of Tennyson's poem ``Maud.'' Despite what Branagh calls ``the cloud of Victorian gloom'' that hangs over the poem, he was fired up by the idea of attempting ``to release something which, like Shakespeare, seemed to be book-bound and dull.'' It would also be, if it could be pulled off, a great splashy piece for
an actor. He adds wryly: ``It's a tour de force just remembering 1,400 lines of verse -- never mind anything else.''
There was no money to be made through the venture, mounted in a small theater on the fringes of London. It also meant turning down the RSC, which had just offered him a bit-part contract -- something most actors his age would have grabbed. Had Branagh accepted, however, he wouldn't have been able to gamble with ``Maud'' -- and his philosophy is that an actor cannot be great in a poor part, but he has at least the potential for greatness in a great part.
``I don't mean that in an arrogant way,'' he explains. ``But if you're the vessel of something wonderful, then it expands you. So you've got to do what you can to put yourself in the way of those opportunities.''
His philosophy paid off. His one-man show elicited the kind of raves most young actors only dream about. It also persuaded RSC directors to put forward an unprecedented offer: the title role in ``Henry V,'' thus giving him the chance to become the youngest actor in the history of the company ever to play the part.
Branagh, son of a carpenter and raised in working-class Belfast until the age of 9 (when his family moved to England), possesses the kind of commanding presence on stage that eludes most actors, whatever their age.
``Ken is without question an enormously talented young man,'' observes RSC director Ron Daniels. ``And he's got it all: amazing instinct, technique, intelligence . . . as well as being immensely charismatic. . . . Every marvelous review that's been given to him he absolutely deserves.''
In person the tousled, blond young man is equally impressive, but in a surprisingly different way. Courteous, thoughtful, disarmingly unpretentious, he exudes an acuity and inner strength far beyond his years. When asked how it feels to be standing on the threshold of uncommon fame, he searches for an honest answer.
``After playing `Henry,' it's quite clear that I'm regarded in a different way,'' Branagh says in a warmer, far less clipped English accent than he uses on stage. ``I don't feel it when I get up in the morning; but, for instance, I'm sitting here talking with you. Before `Henry' that wouldn't have happened. . . . Nevertheless, when people say various things, that I'm going to be this or that, I simply can't think in those terms. I'm just me. I know where I live, I know who my parents are, I know that I have to go out and buy the milk.''
As it happened, the afternoon on which we met marked a turning point in the young actor's life. After a 21-month stint, it was his last day with the RSC. How does he feel on such a momentous occasion, I asked during the rushed interval between a final matinee and evening performance.
``Pretty bushed,'' Branagh replied, smiling wanly while slumped in his dressing room chair.
Indeed, during his time with the company, he's superbly played three other demanding roles. And, as so often with the packed RSC repertoire system, while rehearsing by day he performed late into the night, six days a week. Holidays were few. This underscores a problem for lead RSC actors which has been muttered about for a long while: the punishing schedule that makes two seasons' work as draining as it is rewarding. Though Branagh has loved the experience, he says it's time for a taste of life outsi de the confines of Stratford and the Barbican. The RSC encourages it. ``They like you to go away, just for variety and freshness,'' he says. ``You come back then really hungry for a part.''
He has much to keep him busy in the meantime. While many British actors expect to average 80 percent of their working year unemployed, Branagh can pick and choose his roles. Already he has lined up the leads in two major British TV films -- a biography of D. H. Lawrence and Henrik Ibsen's ``Ghosts'' -- both of which will no doubt eventually make their way to America.
But Branagh is a man of many talents. Recently a group of RSC actors ambitiously put together an informal drama event, tongue-in-cheekly known as Not-the-RSC Festival. For it he wrote, directed, and scored a bitingly clever musical about the relationship between actors and directors. ``Tell Me Honestly,'' as the satire is called, was so applauded by critics and audiences (and directors) alike, in fact, that it was snapped up by a well-known London playhouse. With so much going for him, it' s not surprising that Branagh doesn't want to limit himself to the stage, or even to acting. ``I'd like to do a bit more writing, and certainly more directing, both on stage and on film . . .'' -- here he breaks into a self-deprecating grin -- ``just to be totally megalomaniacal.''
But if colleagues' comments are anything to go by, Branagh isn't megalomaniacal in the slightest. As one leading RSC actress put it: ``Ken is absolutely boundless. There's no question about it. We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg.''