Sunday, March 5, 2006

Love's Labor's Lost - Review (Branagh)


Ernst asked about productions. I was going to write about the Cal Shakes production I saw in Orinda five years ago, but I didn't make any notes on the play nor can I remember very much. Press clippings tell me it was a good show, but little of it comes back to me. For these moments there is always film. Messieurs Findlay attended the Shakespeare-on-Screen Centenary Conference (the irony of which one of us may go into at a later date, probably when we read King John) in Spain in 1999. There, we met maybe 75% of the world's academic experts on Shakespearean films. The vibe was congenial and, a welcome shock to those who also attend the regular Shakespeare crit conferences, replete with comaraderie. I thought it was interesting though how frequently participants seemed to gently justify their particular corner of the lit/crit world even while surrounded by the converted. Apparently, producing scholarly material on the cinematic Shakespeare experience is akin to offering graduate courses on "Queer Theories of Star Trek" or "Semiotics and Sanford and Son." But, call me a groundling, I'm all for it. And so, as we go forward, I'm interested in throwing out some criticism of various film productions of the plays we're reading.

And so: Mike and I watched Kenneth Branagh's 2000 film production of Love's Labour's Lost, starring Branagh (as Berowne), Alessandro Nivola (as Ferdinand), Natascha McElhone (as Rosaline), Richard Briers (as Nathaniel), Geraldine McEwan (as Holofernia [sic] ), Nathan Lane (as Nathan Lane ... uh ... Costard), and, depressingly, Alicia Silverstone (as the Princess).

From a production viewpoint, Love's Labor's Lost puts the theatrical company in a bit of a pickle. What to do with all the jokes that require extensive glossaries and 400-year-old pop cultural knowledge? How does one approach an audience weaned on Schwarzenegger ("something's rotten in the state of Denmark ... and Hamlet is taking out the trash!") and Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, in which Mercutio's frenetic Queen Mab speech is the result of an acid trip? In his Prefaces to Shakespeare, Harley Granville-Barker calls Love's Labor's Lost a "comedy of affectations" and laments that Shakespeare finds himself a little too impressed with the things he sets out to mock. "And these academic follies of Navarre, the fantastic folly of Armado, the pedantic folly of the schoolmaster and the parson -- sometimes the satire is so fine that the folly seems [Shakespeare's] own" (1947, 415).

Branagh tackles both of these issues, first by cutting over 60% of the text to eliminate some of the play's more difficult language and character inconsistencies and dead sisters, second by embracing and recasting the play's affectation and folly in a modern context, staging it as a 1930s Hollywood musical. His emphasis is on the playful. Whereas Granville-Barker sums up Shakespeare's approach as "[i]nstead of dancing, however, we have a dance of dialogue" (422), Branagh reverses this; instead of dialogue, we have dancing, and singing -- Love's Labour's Lost as Fred Astaire romantic comedy.

Set on the eve of WWII (the presence of French royalty takes on more significance here), Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost gives us a trifling aristocratic Europe, oblivious of the political events beginning to cloud around them. He salts the movie with black-and-white Pathe-esque newsreels that allow him not only to provide extra-textual exposition, but to set a frivolous tone. The men's initial oath, for example, is portrayed as nothing but silly, rich boy hijinx by the arch newsreel voice-over. Still, Branagh's conceit works nicely. Take, for instance, the scene in which each of the men reads aloud his love sonnet. Branagh cuts all the poetry, replacing it with a show tune (Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You," I think), his idea being that the Renaissance sonnet is analogous to the tin pan alley hits of Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, and Kern: clever, rhymed verses of love. The muscovite/masque scene is rendered as a hot-jazz version of Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance." The Nine Worthies are cut short in favor of a full-cast musical revue, led by Lane (who actually sounds a little like Ethel Merman), singing Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business." And Lane's Costard zig-zags around the film with a raccoon coat and a cardboard suitcase, like a man looking for a temporarily misplaced vaudeville act; he does a nice job with the running "remuneration" gag.

It's all pretty light and frothy until the king dies. Branagh handles this two ways. In keeping with his romantic comedy, the four separating couples share verses of the song "You Can't Take That Away With Me," and while there is a clear allusion to Bogart and Bergman parting on the tarmac in Casablanca, no one says "we'll always have Navarre." In addition, Branagh, never one to leave any ambiguity, returns to the newsreel motif to show us the post-play year of each character until all (minus Boyet who is killed in the war) come together in triumphal reunion and V-E Day exuberance. Jack gets his Jill.

From a production angle, I think this is clever and satisfying. I pick nits with the fact that few of the actors can sing and dance. One's eyes sort of bug out at Branagh's casting choices here; if you're going to turn Shakespeare into an homage to the great Hollywood musical romantic comedies with some of the most recognizable show tunes ever, what's with choosing folks who look like the closest they got to the bright lights was summer stock in Dubuque? Matthew Lillard? He went from playing Longaville to Shaggy in two Scooby-Doo movies.

On the flip side, Branagh's choices are just as confounding sometimes. The most important Shakespeare left in the movie must be handled by three characters: Berowne (Branagh), Ferdinand (Nivola), and the Princess (Silverstone). Silverstone is stunning ... ly ... bad. One becomes mesmerized by the action of her lips, which sashay back and forth across her face, although not in sync, as if they were doing some show tune of their own, but the words she utters arrive without having been given the passport of comprehension.

This is a problem. The play's women are the engine of its plot, as they provide the opportunity for the men's self-realization. They lend gravitas to the language, simultaneously playing the rhetorical games and recognizing the realities that contextualize them. They put the consequence to the action -- their presence renders the men's neo-Platonic pretensions foolish; their departure requires life-adjusting decisions on the men's part. If Shakespeare has a feminist text, it seems to me this is it, for as Granville-Barker suggests "he puts them, in fact, on terms of equality with men" (434). I would argue that in this play, he puts them above men. Replace these with women like Kate in Shrew or Luciana and Adriana in Comedy of Errors, and what do you have?

The Princess, then, is the most important role. But Silverstone can't pull it off, and her performance rides into the apocalyptic badness of Keanu Reaves' Don John and Jack Lemmon's Marcellus. Oh. My. God. (Notice that all of these are Branagh castings; despite his talents, he has an agenda that sometimes extends him beyond Shakespeare's ability to make him look good.) The women go through the motions of shaping the play, but they don't quite get there. They're too busy dancing cheek to cheek. Branagh's production, then, says more about the style of Love's Labour's Lost than about its substance. It is, in fact, a triumph of style, while something less so of substance.


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