Much Ado About Shakespeare

November 1997
by Scott Barwick

"I'm working with Woody Allen at the moment," Kenneth Branagh offers matter-of factly, "and I asked him the other day, genuinely, 'How the f*%# do you direct when you're in the film?' And he says, "Well, what are you talking about? You do it." And I said, "Yeah, but now I just don't understand how. Maybe,'" adds Branagh, "'a certain kind of madness takes over.'" "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't," to quote Shakespeare, which seems apropos since this is the man who starred in and directed the first complete text version--running time four hours and two minutes--of Hamlet, premiering next month on Showtime. "In the case of Hamlet, it was so part of my blood. The interpretation of the role was so interlinked with the interpretation of the play that the two had to go together."

One kind of gets the same feeling with Branagh and the Bard himself. Perhaps no one since Sir Laurence Olivier has been so strongly associated with the playwright--credit his naturalistic adaptations of Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V, the film that started the resurgence of celluloid Shakespeare. Credit, also, that he really thinks Shakespeare's for everybody--even a Cold Hand Luke aficionado who can be so self-effacing that when asked about bits of similarities between his translations and those of Olivier, Orson Welles and Franco Zeffirelli, he can state with a laugh, "That just indicates I've stolen from everybody."

So why is Shakespeare for everybody? "Like good music, he gets under the skin," says Branagh, who turns 37 next month. "The stories are pretty timeless; the characters are timelessly vivid. It's not amazing to see the reason (the recent William Shakespeare's) Romeo & Juliet had such an impact because the play has been havng that impact for centuries, in the young particularly. It has a direct link to their pre-occupations--sex and love and violence. There's an inner heartbeat to that that won't go away."

Right now, the beat for Branagh is for Love's Labour's Lost, the tale of young men who vow to withdraw from the world, especially that of women, and end up not doing so. "It's sort of a forerunner of Much Ado About Nothing. I've been mulling for a long time about how to put that on film. (Shakespeare) can be slapsticky, then suddenly take your breath away with a beautiful piece of poetry."

But, Branagh admits, different plays ring truer at different times. "It comes and goes. Things leap out at you. People say things in plays that suddenly make sense of your life at that moment. And they become very, very, very personal."

There are, however, also constants, such as his belief that Olivier's Richard III is "probably the greatest Shakespeare performance on film. It's the cheekiest, sexiest kind of thing." But, for Branagh, his favorite play he thinks is Twelfth Night. "I tend to like the comedies more. They make me cry. They're sort of melancholy and broadly funny at the same time. And", he adds wryly, "they're shorter, quite frankly."

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