Shakespeare Meets Busby Berkeley
by David Lister
The Independent (UK), April 17 1999
On "A Stage" at Shepperton film studios a set has been
built to resemble an Oxbridge college. From the door of the School
of Social Philosophy appears a tap-dancing Kenneth Branagh, in
top hat, white tie and tails, and singing Fred Astaire's "Dancing
Cheek To Cheek".
If that is not surprising enough,
this is a film of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. It is being
tipped to be the next film after Shakespeare in Love and Romeo
and Juliet to make the Bard hip for young audiences and win its
Branagh, who is directing and
starring, has added Thirties song-and-dance numbers to Shakespeare's
text. It is a home-grown film, financed by the National Lottery
through Pathe Films in Britain. But the song-and-dance Shakespeare
concept has so intrigued one of the world's most powerful film
producers, Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, that he will distribute
it in America, guaranteeing huge publicity and access to thousands
The film has a British and American
cast, with Alicia Silverstone, Natascha McElhone and Adrian Lester
among those joining Branagh. But it is particularly important
for the British film industry, as it is the first film musical
to be made here since Absolute Beginners more than 12 years ago.
For this reason the Arts Council
has given its first bursary to a young choreographer to study
how to work with film actors, as choreographers in Britain have
so little experience of this. The council was urged to do this
by the film's principal choreographer, Stuart Hopps, who is founder
chairman of the British Association of Choreographers.
He says: "It struck me that
since this was the first musical for some time, it would be a
marvellous training for a young choreographer. There are so many
technical things to learn about the filming of dance - understanding
tracking shots, the way the lens of the camera curves and what
seems linear on the stage becomes rounded on the screen, taking
a musical number and breaking it down."
The beneficiary of the bursary
is Alison Golding, 30. She said: "It's very different to
the stage work and pop promos I do, being wide-screen rather
than video. Doing the tap routines with the actors took a long
time, as it is new to them. But to be around someone like Ken
Branagh (who) has such, vision, drive and energy, becomes very
Love's Labour's Lost is a comedy
of love and romance in which four young noblemen, led by the
king of Navarre, swear to renounce women for three years and
promptly fall in love with the Princess of France and her companions.
The men attempt to salvage their
honour in the face of much sharp-witted teasing from the women.
Branagh, after a day of numerous
quick changes from tap dancing in top hat and tails to T-shirt
and sitting behind the camera, took a break from filming to tell
me how he believed the song-and-dance concept would not just
revitalise the British musical film but was a much more natural
appendage to Shakespeare than it might seem.
"The vocabulary of romantic
love is depressingly narrow," he said. "Cole Porter
and George Gershwin use the words of Shakespeare. "They
Can't take That Away From Me" sounds quite natural when
a couple part in the play. And there are so many references in
the play to music and dance as elements of courtship. Shakespeare
goes on in this play about women's eyes and the power of a look
across a crowded room. The idea of love at first sight is something
that sits very well in the world of musicals."
All the songs in the play, even
such classics as "Dancing Cheek To Cheek", are used
to further the action rather than interrupt it. The music, said
Branagh, "allows people to surrender to the verse. Some
of the speeches are unquestionably arias. I would like to think
that the verse may be given literally a better chance to sing
than otherwise it might be."
The film had an unusually long
three-week rehearsal period, necessary to learn dance as well
as verse speaking. Branagh spent the first day showing the cast
Top Hat and other Thirties musical films.
Considering whether Shakespeare
in Love will help his project, Branagh said: "It's hard
for me to work out whether in the midst of millennium fever this
reclamation of Shakespeare is a reminder to ourselves that there
has been a great achievement, or whether it's just a fashion
"But Shakespeare in Love
and Romeo and Juliet have, in crass terms, allowed Shakespeare
to be 'cool.' And increased interest in Shakespeare's life is
probably a good thing."
Of his own project he has no
doubts. "The play has magic in the web of it. It gets under
the skin," he said, sounding uncannily like a musical number.
"And the film is a sort of genre of its own. It's not like
anything you've ever seen."
The producer, David Barron, is
promising a release before Christmas, which, by accident or design,
makes it just eligible for next year's Oscars.
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