When Shakespeare Met Gershwin 

A talk with Love’s Labour’s Lost star Kenneth Branagh

It’s OK with Kenneth Branagh if the mention of his name conjures up visions of serious acting, London-based theatrical productions of Shakespeare, or big screen adaptations of the same. But he’d be very happy to know that people realize he’s got a light side, too.

Since only very small American audiences saw him in either his own Peter’s Friends or Woody Allen’s Celebrity, even most fans don’t know that Branagh has a flair for comedy. But it’s very much on display in his newest film—which he adapted, directed and stars in—a charming, breezy, song-filled version of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Pushed up in time to 1939 in Navarre, it’s the story of a quartet of men who share a vow to give up women for three years, and cut back on sleep and food, in order to spend more time educating themselves. The plan, this being a comedy, goes awry about five minutes in when four women make an appearance and use their charms to lure the men into their arms. The film sparkles with pure Shakespearean dialogue as well as songs by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin and others, and wildly choreographed dance numbers.

It’s also filled with a slapstick sensibility.

“I’m a big fan of silliness,” says Branagh. “Of unexplained physical silliness. I enjoy it enormously. I’ve always admired people who’ve got real funny bones. In fact working with Woody Allen was very interesting. A minor movement in Woody’s body is funny. I don’t know whether it’s the cumulative effect of having watched him be that character over years and years, or whether as I imagine, he’s sort of refined it. There’s just something about how he does a look, he turns around, he moves the shoulders. It’s funny.”

Branagh, as Berowne, the most outspoken fellow in the film, plays much of it bigger than life, with a huge smile on his face, speaking quickly and practically prancing around the color-coordinated sets. But it’s big Timothy Spall, as the lovelorn Spanish nobleman Don Armado, who really gets to overdo it, to just the right degree.

“In the scene where we see that his character is in love, I said to Tim, ‘I’m going to do it wide here. Do you know Shaggy from Scooby Doo?’” recalls Branagh, who suddenly gets up and galoomphs around the room, his shoulders stooped, his arms swinging droopily by his side. “I said, ‘Go like that, go slowly. When you’re dressed in that kind of outfit, and you’re being shown in silhouette, it’s funny. You’ve got your tummy, you’ve got your sword dangling, you’re leading with your hips. These are funny things. Enjoy that and think about that.’ “

But this isn’t just comic shtick. There’s also a lot of music that, in the tradition of old-fashioned musicals, comes bursting out quite often. Branagh admits some of that idea comes from being a big fan of British writer Dennis Potter, some from Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and some just because he wasn’t very enthralled about the current state of musicals.

“I had been part of a number of people asking why don’t musicals work any more. And you come up with various reasons. At the end of the ’60s life was much more serious, and the trivial nature of these things seemed rather unappealing. And through the ’80s subject matter on the musical stage became much more serious with the Les Miserables and the Miss Saigons and the Evitas.

“When I watched Everyone Says I Love You, it seemed to me that the audience felt most comfortable in that very last sequence which has all the romantic vocabulary. So you’re in Paris, at night, moonlight, by the banks of the Seine, he’s in a tux, she’s in a beautiful gown, she flies. And there was no problem accepting the fantastical nature of this, the heightened glamour of this. So that was a big encouragement. I thought maybe the time had come again to provide a world in which somehow it seems natural for people to burst into song and dance.”

So Branagh found a way to cut the play down, but still retain what he calls the verbal greatest hits of Shakespeare, and to create spots where he could instill it with a real musical structure. He had his characters reach the point where words were no longer enough.

“Passionate overflow of feeling meant that through frustration or love they could no longer speak, they had to sing or dance,” he explains. “So that the end result wasn’t just a play with songs stuck on, but something that was a created, constructed musical with some sense of being organic.”

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