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
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.