Labour of love for Branagh: Take Shakespeare, Add Music

Toronto Star, June 9 2000
by Geoff Pevere

Emerging onto a sunsplashed open terrace of the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto, Kenneth Branagh looks every inch the respected British thespian. Not in the ascot, pipe and cape sense, but in the pale, exposed and cringing sense. In the who-the-hell-turned-the-lights-on sense. Even behind sunglasses, you can tell he's squinting. And there's no shade in sight.

Still, query the man about the reasons for making Love's Labour's Lost, his exuberantly light-and-fluffy song-and-dance rendering of one of Shakespeare's least-performed comedies that opens next Friday, and even Kenneth Branagh takes on a little colour. True, it's slightly pinkish, but it's colour.

``Shakespeare certainly doesn't need any help with popularity,'' the 39 year-old actor-director says by way of motivation for the project. ``But he's got to be constantly reinvestigated so that he's not set in stone. For me it's all about the way it's done. It's about his pertinence and relevance to who we are and what we do.

``It's like what a friend once told me,'' Branagh says, lighting a smoke. ``It doesn't matter where you are. Throw a stone you're bound to hit at least 12 people who are convinced that Shakespeare is turgid, boring and meaningless. I suppose what I do is try to fight to engage with that. That's why I do it.''

A drastically reduced and reshuffled interpretation of one of the playwright's earliest efforts (which Branagh calls ``very challenging in its full version''), Love's Labour's Lost ventures much further out the revisionist limb than any of his previous attempts (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet) to smuggle the Bard into the multiplex.

Shot entirely on London studio sets and modelled on the satiny delights of the '30s Hollywood musical, the film is a sugar-spun amalgamation of Stratford-on-Avon and Tin Pan Alley. Which is to say that one moment you're listening to Branagh (as the lovesick scholar Berowne) say ``And when love speaks, the voice of all the gods/Make heaven drowsy with the harmony'', the next you're hearing him do a perfectly passable rendition of ``The Way You Wear Your Hat.''

It's a cheeky conceit, and a risky one, but Branagh stands behind it firmly. Besides, he knows the movie's musical numbers - including the singing by a largely non-musical cast - are a little creaky. They're supposed to be. ``Sure it's flawed, but that's the way I wanted it. It's not about perfect technique, it's about heart.''

Hearts on sleeves to be precise. The kind of heart this self-proclaimed ``passionate enthusiast'' of Shakespeare hears beating behind the playwright's verse, and which he also discovered pounding the soundstages of Depression-era Hollywood musicals.

``I worked on the script somewhere between 18 months and two years,'' he says. ``I even started writing the songs myself, but they simply weren't good enough. That's when I went back to these classics.''

For Branagh the process of fusing Love's Labour's Lost with Top Hat was more than (as he calls it) ``a purely nostalgic, retro exercise.'' He cites strong affinities between the immaculate songcraft of say, Irving Berlin or Cole Porter and the self-conscious versification of the young Shakespeare.

``What they share is that, in their own vernacular, they're equally witty,'' says Branagh. ``And Love's Labour's Lost is a young man's play which is very pleased with its own cleverness. It likes using rhyme. It likes using puns.''

He's leaning forward now, clearly determined to illustrate matters as clearly as possible. ``What these songwriters did was to build this kind of silly or carefree carapace for the expression of something which was actually really profound. `The way you wear your hat.' That's just an observation of the banal charactersistics of a relationship, a simple observation. But when it's transmuted into this beautiful melody, it becomes something else. It takes on a universal resonance. And that's what Shakespeare was doing in his verse.

``Besides, he was always mentioning song and dance, wasn't he?''

Set in a royal academy where the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola) and his best buddies (Branagh, Matthew Lillard and Adran Lester) have taken a doomed vow of abstinence against the distractions of romantic temptation (as represented by Alicia Silverstone, Natasha McElhone, Emily Mortimer and Carmen Ejogo), the movie has a tone of almost diaphanous romantic whimsy.

It's kind of like watching the mushy interludes in the Marx Brothers movies without the Marx Brothers' parts, or maybe Pennies From Heaven without the grim bits.

For discerning tastes, as they say, and definitely not recommended for the hard of heart or glucose-intolerant.

``You're either with this or you're not,'' the director admits with a shrug. ``Right from the moment the first song kicks in you either go `Ahhhhh' or you go `AAAAHHHH!'

``I think it's a groan for some people but magic for others.

``At one of the first screenings,'' he continues, ``some people even walked out when the singing started. But those who stayed, stayed to the end. And what was great was watching this slow grin appear on the faces of people as they just let themselves go with it.''

A variation on that slow grin appears on Kenneth Branagh's face. ``You see, what I loved about the idea of doing the play as a musical was that there was something completely uncynical about what Shakespeare was writing. Something naive and innocent. It's about people who don't mind delighting in their own silliness. And that's what I wanted to capture by using these songs and the those old musicals.

``We live in such a cynical age, and I wanted to escape that.''

Kenneth Branagh squints upward at the midday sun. He probably wouldn't mind escaping that either.

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