Shakespeare at the Inns of Court
The New Straits Times, March
by Ralph Berry
Kenneth Branagh's films, said John Andrews, are palpable hits
"that have revived the sagging fortunes of a 435-year-old
has-been and transformed him into today's hottest screenwriter".
A touch over the top, you may feel, but the point is fairly made.
And the occasion demanded a non- shrinking tribute. This was
the annual Gielgud award of the Shakespeare Guild, given this
year to Kenneth Branagh. The Shakespeare Guild, whose president
is John Andrews, operates out of Washington, D.C. (For more information,
write to The Shakespeare Guild at 2141 Wyoming Avenue NW, Suite
41, Washington, D.C. 20008, USA). Its award is the Golden Quill.
Past honorees are Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Zoe Caldwell and
This year for the first time
the award ceremony was staged in England, at the Middle Temple.
This is one of the Inns of Court in London, which belong to the
four legal societies that have the exclusive right of admitting
persons to practise at the Bar. The Middle Temple has genuine
Shakespearean associations, and the Great Hall holds some 500
celebrants. "All that was most sonorous of name and title,"
as Evelyn Waugh wrote, "was there for the beano."
Philip Glazer, the US Ambassador
to the UK, greeted the guests. Then followed an evening of messages
and Shakespearean vignettes from numerous well-wishers. These
included Helen Bonham Carter, now sadly separated from Branagh,
who went on stage to testify to "an extraordinary man";
nothing was heard of Emma Thompson.
Billy Crystal wrote that "Kenneth
has been to Shakespeare what Viagra has been to me", a tribute
that does nothing but credit to all parties. Richard Briers wryly
thanked Branagh for turning him from a well-loved comedy actor
into a well-respected classical actor. "My income dropped
65 per cent but my family respects me."
Patrick Doyle, the composer,
played the Agincourt theme from Henry V on the piano. Messages
were received from Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Woody Allen.
Branagh is well liked and well appreciated by massive cohorts
of friends and colleagues. He observes Dr Johnson's dictum: "A
man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair."
After the climactic presentation
of the Golden Quill and Branagh's graceful response, we all broke
for the refreshments, or would have if the topography of the
Great Hall had not solidified the crowd into a congealed mass.
I wondered if things had been better organised in Shakespeare's
But gallant waitresses pushed
through the corridors bearing trays of cocktail sausages and
wine. The throng found escape from the corridors into side chambers.
Eventually the famine was al-leviated; loaves and fishes were
made available for all, under the gaze of past worthies of the
Middle Temple whose portraits approved the event. Branagh stayed
on, still signing autographs for his many admirers. He has stamina,
Place is authenticity, the experience
we all yearn for. The Great Hall of the Middle Temple - not open
to the general public - is a secular temple to Shakespeareans.
It was here that the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night
took place. The diary of John Manningham, a law student, records
that Twelfth Night was presented in the Middle Temple on Feb
2 (Candlemas), 1602. Shakes-peare would very probably have been
a cast member on that occasion. I tag him for Fabian (easy, nondescript,
but with a couple of effective late speeches).
Be sure that I looked hard at
the Great Hall for evidence of performance values. One enters
the Hall through one of two large doorways, side by side. (The
doors have been removed.) At the far end of the Hall is a platform,
on which the evening's ceremonies took place. The seats are arranged,
backs to the entrances, facing the platform. But in Shakespeare's
day the seating would have faced the other way, and the doorways
would have been the indispensable entrances to the acting space,
stage left and stage right.
There's a Minstrel Gallery directly
above the entrances, which in principle could have been used
as the upper stage (balcony in Romeo and Juliet, Harfleur wall
in Henry V). But there's too much wood panelling fronting the
gallery for the audience to get much of a view of the players,
and anyway Twelfth Night does not call for an upper stage scene.
It is possible that Twelfth Night was written expressly for an
inn of court. The reference to "bay windows transparent
as barricadoes, and clerestories towards the south-north"
(4.2.40-41) has been taken to refer to the oriel windows of the
Middle Temple Hall. The line would vibrate strangely for its
Candlemas audience. There's more outside. Shakespeare makes the
pivotal scene in Part One of Henry VI take place in the Temple
Garden (2.4). He imagines the quarrel of the roses to have started
among a group of high-spirited aristocrats. "Within the
Temple Hall we were too loud;/ The garden here is more convenient."
(3-4) So they pluck the roses, red and white, as the badge of
their allegiance. This is the origin of the Wars of the Roses,
the Civil Wars that engulfed England for many years. Surely Shakespeare
must have walked in the Temple Garden.
I entirely agree with Hannah
Betts (The Times, Aug 19, 1999) that a return to Shakespeare's
local roots will take us much closer to Shakespeare than the
overso-phisticated performances at the great State theatres.
She had just seen The Tempest at Lincoln's Inn, and much preferred
it to the "bizarre late Tudor Euro-Disney" at the new
Southwark Globe. The Lancashire developments at Hoghton Tower,
of which I hope to write soon, will take us even closer to Shakespeare's
Meantime, there is Branagh's
new film of Love's Labour's Lost, to be released this month.
I saw it at the BAFTA preview. This film is a snack, not a nourishing
meal, but perfectly acceptable so long as one is content to settle
Branagh's central conceit is
to set the action in the 1930s, making the play into a musical
comedy film of the era. All the devices of the genre are deployed.
From time to time the action stops so that the cast can break
into a song-and-dance routine. There is even a homage to Busby
Berkeley, when the Princess of France and her retinue perform
a well- choreographed swimming ballet. The songs come variously
from Gerswhin, Cole Porter and others. One is caressed with `Stormy
Weather' and `There may be trouble ahead'.
Since all this takes up time,
the needs of narrative are supplied by Navarretone News. The
hectoring, strident voice of the announcer goes along with news
of the gathering crisis in 1939. Here I thought that Branagh
committed an error of taste. The events of the war, alluded to
in newsreel black and white, are altogether overwhelming for
the admittedly sombre conclusion of the play. Berowne (Branagh)
goes off to become a field dresser, a heavy-handed analogue for
the year's social work in a hospital that Rosaline prescribes
for him. I like 1930s musicals, but 1940s war movies are something
Still, there are incidental pleasures.
The main setting appears to be the quadrangle of an Oxford college
(though the film was shot in Shepperton Studios). The ladies
make a magical evening entrance, being punted along the Isis
in boats illuminated with glowing Chinese lanterns.
Of the actors, the ladies are
charming, and the dancing is sprightly. Branagh is a witty and
well-spoken Berowne, relishing both his dance routines and his
(few) chances of verse-speaking. He makes the most of "And
when love speaks, the voice of all the gods/ Make heaven drowsy
with the harmony." (4.3.319-20)
I missed the Muscovites though;
no director should pass up the chance to make the four young
men place their hands on their hips and kick out their legs in
the Russian style. Timothy Small's Don Armado is a good-humoured
lampoon of the Spanish diplomatic-military. Ho- lofernes was
converted into "Holofernia", thus enabling Ge-raldine
McEwan's exquisitely lubricious Oxford don to convey intimations
of strange sexual pleasures. They left in her line about "their
daughters profit very greatly under you" (4.2.74), which
male actors are accustomed to profit by.
This Love's Labour's Lost makes
for an amusing couple of hours. But these things, as Bacon says,
are but toys.
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