Todmorden based director determined prove her brother wrong about Shakespeare’s problem play. She talks to Sue Riley

Great British Life: Measure for MeasureMeasure for Measure (Image: Archant)

TO many members of Todmorden Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Association she is known as Joyce. Or Mrs Fraser. Yet in her professional life as a director and writer she has kept her maiden name – Branagh, and yes, she is related to Sir Ken, one of the best actors and Shakespeareans of his generation. But Joyce just knows him as her big brother.

In theatrical circles the name is inextricably linked with Shakespeare – Sir Ken continues to win plaudits in London for his new theatre company including big names like Judi Dench and Zoe Wanamaker – with Joyce making her own name for herself in the north of England.

This month she is directing her first promenade production of Measure for Measure at Lancaster Castle. She studied it at A-Level but Ken was less than complimentary, describing it as ‘a dud.’ To date, her award winning brother has not appeared in it or directed the play. Fortunately, Joyce has much more faith in it.

It’s not her first brush with Shakespeare - over the past 20 years she’s directed more than 50 plays including many of the Bard’s. ‘This play is not as well known but I think it’s really good. It’s one of those plays that as you are doing it you are finding more and more fascinating things about it. It has real darkness and real daftness, it is not light and fluff,’ she said. The show also has a 1950s twist and is a promenade performance using the cells, courtrooms and tower of the Norman Castle as different scene locations which presents its own challenges. ‘I have been to see plays at the castle and I really, really like the space. As a director you imagine what you might do,’ she said.

Great British Life: Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet in the film version of Hamlet 1996 Warner BrosKenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet in the film version of Hamlet 1996 Warner Bros (Image: © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

She chats to her brother about directing but insists they are not a luvvie dynasty. ‘It’s kind of weird but people must think we are a theatrical family but it does not feel like that. Our family were not into the theatre at all, very ordinary working class parents from Belfast with absolutely nothing to do with the theatre world. Ken just had a really good drama teacher. We are not the Redgraves!’ she said.

Brought up in Reading – the family moved from Belfast when her mum was pregnant with her - Joyce studied English at university and she learnt to direct and then worked at Watford Palace Theatre before turning freelance in 2007, about the same time she moved to Todmorden on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border.

She had attended a writing course nearby and loved the area. It also coincided with her husband Andy being offered the chance to relocate with his IT firm to Manchester. ‘It’s a little town with a few nice restaurants and nice bars. I am very much Mrs Fraser there, a few people know (about Ken) but it’s not something I broadcast.

‘When I first started directing I used my mother’s maiden name, at the time Ken was everywhere, he is still famous now but… I was Joyce Harper for a bit and then I got over it and thought “sod it!”’ She says her husband, who is now studying for a MSc in archaeology, often lets slip about his famous brother-in-law.

Great British Life: Joyce Branagh at Lancaster CastleJoyce Branagh at Lancaster Castle (Image: Archant)

‘We had a last minute holiday and we did this Nile cruise and it was like a posh Butlins. We met this older couple and got chatting and they asked what I did and I said I was a director. They said their son was an actor and I joked “Am I going to get his CV in my handbag?” It turned out he was Ewan McGregor! Andy was saying ‘Do yours, do yours!’ We thought it was hilarious. It reminded me of my parents, trying not to boast but wanting to.’

She says she’s talked to her brother Ken – whose visit to Todmorden last year coincided with the town’s beer festival - about a couple of joint projects as the only time they’ve worked together was when she was a runner on Othello and Much Ado. ‘Ken would make a very good Duke in Measure for Measure, he can do it when it transfers to the West End!’ she said. “There’s a couple of things we have talked about, but my brothers still treat me as though I’m 15 (Ken is a decade older). It’s the little sis thing.’

When she’s not directing – she calls it her ‘day job’ - she also writes plays, some for the Manchester’s 24:7 Theatre Festival. She’s also turned her hand to acting and had walk on parts in Emmerdale and Hollyoaks last year. ‘It’s that freelance thing, I was writing because I moved up here and I was not getting the directing work. I was doing writing work which is a bit solitary and I dipped my toe in the water at Todmorden Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Association (TAODS) and then did some professional work.’

She also wrote an adaptation of Vicar of Dibley for the TAODS and it was so successful she’s now been asked to write a sequel. Mrs Fraser, it appears, is settling into her new home in the Upper Calder Valley very nicely indeed.

Celebrating Shakespeare

Shakespeare 400 is a season of artistic events across the UK to make the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. As part of the celebrations Bolton actress Maxine Peake is taking the lead role in a new adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the BBC; Manchester-based Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy will be premiering a new work and Bolton Symphony Orchestra will perform music inspired by his plays at Victoria Hall, Bolton, on March 5.

Shakespeare is believed to have visited and stayed in Lancashire on several occasions: he is said to have lodged at the 16th Century Rufford Hall near Ormskirk for six months in the 1580s and at the tender age of 15 is thought, through his Jesuit connections, to have stayed at Hoghton Tower and possibly worked as a tutor there.

There’s also a theory that Shakespeare’s grandfather may have been a Lancastrian. At the time the surname Shakeshaft was common in the Preston area and there is evidence that William’s grandfather Richard sometimes used that variant spelling. So who knows, the world’s greatest playwright may be one of our own!

Measure for Measure, part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, by Demi-paradise Productions is on at Lancaster Castle from February 25 to March 19. Tickets cost £25/27. Box Office 01524 64998 from 9.30am-4.30pm.