What is This Thing Called Love's Labour's Lost?

Guardian (UK), March 27 2000
by Sarah Gristwood

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 her chest.

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 two-day love.

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.

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