Under the fake shade of fake trees, a group of actors have set up camp with
an air of conviction that makes sunshine seem like a reality. On the foot of
a swirling staircase Alicia Silverstone is curled up asleep, her scarlet
evening dress capped by sneakers, hair net and a giant puffa jacket (a more
realistic reaction to the temperature), a towel cuddled, teddy bear-like, to
While the crew perches on cold simulated stone to discuss piles and other
personal problems picked up elsewhere ("Just wait till you've done the
Ouarzazate Quickstep") the cast, at 9.30 on a chilly morning, is faced with
the task of laughing loudly and musically.
This is one of Shepperton's biggest sound stages, decked out with walls,
willows and punts to make a kind of "movie Oxbridge" - otherwise known as
the court of Navarre - for Kenneth Branagh's film of Love's Labour's Lost.
It is, he says, "a larger-than-life atmosphere in which people would
naturally burst into song."
Branagh, who adapted, directs and plays the romantic hero, Berowne, is
wearing a dinner jacket and has a tiny moustache. He used to dislike the
comparison, but his resemblance to Laurence Olivier is extraordinary.
Branagh has set the story of four young men sworn to abjure women, and four
young women who make them change their minds, in the 30s. And he has
replaced two-thirds of the words with the songs of George Gershwin, Cole
Porter and Irving Berlin - "artists who have a chance of sitting alongside
Shakespeare and not being embarrassed by it".
The production team tried writing original lyrics. It didn't work. Neither
did using the composers' lesser numbers, which would have been cheaper.
"But," says Branagh, "when you have Berowne going on about the transforming
power of love, saying that when love speaks, the voice of all the gods makes
heaven drowsy with it, it seems very appropriate to start singing 'Heaven,
I'm in heaven'. So far, the play has not bucked against our treatment."
Branagh's previous Shakespeare films (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and
Hamlet) were more straightforward. But Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet moved
the goalposts. A musical Love's Labour's Lost may be a gamble but the
initial response (the reception at the Berlin film festival, the Variety
review) suggests it has paid off. Unlike the four-hour Hamlet, this clocks
in at a brisk 90-odd minutes, and that's nothing to do with Harvey
Weinstein, whose firm Miramax is distributing it in many territories: "This
is the director's cut," says Branagh firmly.
Perhaps he has hedged his bets by going for one of Shakespeare's less
popular plays. Love's Labour's Lost couples a simple plot with an elaborate
poetry packed with topical references that "make it seem as if it's written
in code", as Richard Briers (who plays the curate Nathaniel) puts it.
Branagh says the play responds best to heroic treatment: "In this century
there have been only five significant productions and they've all had quite
strong directors." He refers to Harley Granville Barker's line that it is "a
fashionable play 300 years out of fashion" and says that, like Romeo and
Juliet, its youthful energy is a great plus.
Back in his RSC days Branagh played the King of Navarre to Roger Rees's
Berowne. He admits he didn't understand the work. Perhaps you need to be
edging towards middle years to appreciate youthful verve. Now the
39-year-old Branagh says Berowne is less cynical, less set against love,
than Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: "This is the film about the look
across a crowded room."
Drawing on the late 30s works thematically as well as stylistically. Besides
the showtime element - "very perky and silly and full of fun" - the period
produced a spate of films "where women called the shots while the men do the
posturing". A recurring theme was men's constancy - "or inconstancy" - and
women got their turn at "the game of torturing the boys", as Silverstone
(who plays the Princess) calls it.
In the play, the romantic games are ended when the sudden death of the King
of France makes the Princess sweep her ladies home. In the film, the visuals
give his death a political context; this is 1939 and France is falling to
the Germans. As the Princess and her entourage leave Navarre, the film
reference is to Casablanca. A plane stands on the tarmac as the cast sing
They Can't Take That Away From Me. In crackling black and white news footage
the Princess and her ladies are led away to internment camp, while the King
of Navarre and his men join the services.
"The play benefits from being set very specifically in time and place, and
it fits the prewar generation," says Branagh. "There's something ennobling
about that last hurrah." It makes sense of the couples' arbitrary
separation, the one that has led many Shakespeareans to postulate a
long-lost sequel, Love's Labour's Won, and gives a poignancy to their
Branagh is stirring a rich soup of references, but he sweeps everyone along.
On set, he is above all reassuring. He has to be. On the basis of three
weeks' rehearsal - "Shakespeare boot camp" - a cast not exactly famed for
its musical experience is being asked to perform the numbers we are used to
seeing done with real panache. Broadway star Nathan Lane, many times a
musicals award winner, plays Costard the clown but sings only one number
(There's No Business Like Showbusiness, appropriately). Briers, and
Geraldine McEwan as Holofernia, get to sing The Way You Look Tonight.
Timothy Spall as a Dali-eseque Don Armadio combines RSC experience with
Topsy-Turvy, and Adrian Lester as Dumaine combines professional dance and
Sondheim's Company with Rosalind in the all-male As You Like It. But many
other cast members, including Silverstone and Matthew Lillard as Longaville,
mention neither Shakespeare nor musicals on their CV.
Eclectic is too mild a word for it - but a mixed cast is something Branagh
has used before, even more conspicuously. Hamlet featured Billy Crystal and
Charlton Heston alongside John Gielgud. Much Ado had Denzel Washington and
Keanu Reeves alongside British unknowns, and Emma Thompson told graphically
of how the disparate group had to be welded together by impromptu spaghetti
parties - rather as Merchant Ivory casts, in their poorer days, had to be
placated with Ismail Merchant's curries. But it is noticeable how many older
members of the cast, and the production team, have worked with Branagh
regularly. None more so than Briers, who was regarded only as a TV actor
when Branagh first cast him on stage in Twelfth Night. Through Branagh's
Renaissance company Briers went on to play Lear. "Lear after The Good Life!"
says Briers incredulously. "It would have been awful if I had got into my
70s and never had those opportunities." As a director, Briers says,
Branagh's special gift is to draw ever more emotion out of his performers.
"If you're English middle class, it's very difficult to yield it easily."
Branagh is planning more Shakespeares: Macbeth should be coming shortly,
followed by As You Like It. That's another sort of gamble. His producer,
David Barron, says: "Where Shakespeare films have made money, they've made
money. Where they haven't, they really haven't." But the energy triggered by
Shakespeare in Love and Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet is still pumping. Ethan
Hawke's Hamlet and Julie Taymor's terrifying Titus have been praised in the
US, and Tim Roth recently announced plans to direct King Lear as adapted by
Harold Pinter: "I'm not interested in a bunch of people standing around a
castle talking," Roth says.
It seems only fair that, given the length of his relationship with
Shakespeare, Branagh should ride the wave. But he could have been swept
away. Lillard says reading a scene with Branagh is "like shooting hoops with
Michael Jordan," but also that in Branagh's company, "I'm sitting with the
grandfather of the Bard." It is a double-edged compliment.
"We have broken away from the various earlier periods of Shakespeare
movie-making that were linked more closely to theatre," says Branagh. "Now
these stories are free for exploration in a way they weren't before. The
canvas is blank again. There's a generation out there who have never seen
one of Orson Welles's Shakespeare films, or Zeffirelli's - or even one of
ours. What we've done with Love's Labour's Lost might provoke hostile
debate, but even that's a good thing."
Loves Labour's Lost opens on Friday.