Shakespeare with a Twist
TV Guide, 20-26 August 2007
Transplanting Shakespeare's classic romantic comedy 'As You Like It' to late-1800s Japan isn't as radical as it sounds. (Noh theater it's not.) In a way it demonstrates the famous adage, stated here by Kevin Kline as the melancholy philosopher Jaques, that "all the world's a stage."
There are scenes of Kabuki theater and sumo wrestling in this lavish HBO/BBC film treatment, billed as "a dream of Japan," but director Kenneth Branagh's culture-clash gimmick doesn't get in the way of the play's many intoxicating pleasures. This isn't samurai Shakespeare.
The setting merely adds an exotic new backdrop to the story of Europeans living in a Japanese trade colony, who for reasons of violent family conflict find themselves exiled to the lush, enchanted Forest of Arden. There, improbable love blooms for both highborn and low. The result is a midsummer night's treat, embracing tones from the delightfully silly to the rhapsodically euphoric.
Bryce Dallas Howard and MI-5's David Oyelowo are charming as the swoony central couple, Rosalind and Orlando. Howard is never convincingly masculine in her male disguise as Ganymede, a subterfuge that allows Rosalind to gently mock and taunt her lovesick swain, but you can't help but buy into the fantasy of this comic courtship. The image of Orlando's feverish love poems (in Japanese calligraphy) attached to the forest's trees is simply ravishing.
By the time the fable ends with one of Shakespeare's multiple-marriage frolics, the spell of Branagh's visuals and the playwright's language has worked its magic.
And be sure to stay tuned for the postmodern epilogue, delivered by Howard backstage, so to speak, as she walks in character to her trailer. It's playful to the end, just as I like it.