Why did Kenneth Branagh, who only a short time ago filmed Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in utterly complete form, resulting in a picture nearly four hours long, decide to treat the Bard’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in so different a fashion–altering the setting, drastically abbreviating the text and adding classic songs (by the likes of Kern, Gershwin, Berlin and Porter) to the mix?
“I love the play, and I love musicals,” the British actor-writer-director explained during a recent interview in Dallas. “I was in the play about fifteen years ago, and the sort of energy, the joy and the fun that we had was exactly as I had experienced doing a musical when I was in drama school, a Gershwin musical, actually, called ‘Lady Be Good.’ They both deal with the same subject matter–romantic love is what they deal with–and they both do it sort of in the same way, which is with a terrific lightness of touch. They make all their points very gently, they’re unafraid to be silly; and to my surprise,…there’s something touching about the way the tone changes at the end and surprises you by how moved one is. At least that’s how I feel. It seemed like a good marriage.”Still, Branagh realized that some would feel that he needed to justify the changes made in the work of a master. As to shortening the text, he noted, “We’ve cut–we haven’t changed the words.” In fact, he added, his original script had been longer, but it was further abbreviated during shooting and editing. “It found the length of time it needed to be, in some ways,” he said. “In editing a sense of rhythm told you when another song was necessary or when the scene was going on too long. The implicit rules of musical comedy started to come out, and so a certain unevenness in the original adaptation is what we adjusted to.”
As to setting the action in the period immediately preceding World War II, Branagh explained that he felt the thirties fit the tone of the work in that the era was “very poignant–where time is precious, where the anxiety that the world might turn upside down is imminent–a glamorous period, but sort of a poignant and tender one.” He went on to note that the fact that many viewers won’t be acquainted with this play of Shakespeare made the change an easy one, and explained why so many stage productions of it had been set in very different time frames. “Peoples’ relative unfamiliarity with it means that there does seem to be an invitation to a certain kind of license to free the play in some ways from its very language-bound elements. It felt like it released the play in some way,” he said.
Branagh added that the fact that Shakespeare’s works can flourish in so many different settings and forms is proof of their timelessness: “It’s a good demonstration of his versatility. The only limits are our imagination. It’s a good thing, as long as there’s a real and genuine creative urge behind it. It keeps him alive in a healthy way.”
The choice of music, Branagh admitted, was a complicated affair. “We tried to write original songs,” he said. “The music wasn’t the problem; the lyrics were. I tried writing some lyrics–it was very, very embarrassing, to put those next to Shakespeare. We then looked at the lesser- known works of the composers we’ve used, and they didn’t seem to stack up either in quite the same way.” Eventually he decided on standards like “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “I Won’t Dance,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” “It’s no accident that the songs we ended up choosing were classics in their own right,” he explained. “They do the same thing in their own vernacular that Shakespeare does. They’re very simple, and yet they manage to be profound and universal. The process was trying to find a structure, with the cut version of the play, where it seemed organic and natural for people to burst into song; it’s a question of finding those moments where there was a passionate overflow of feeling and you felt that words were no longer enough, and now they had to sing or they had to dance.”
Putting the whole project together in a relatively short shoot–just three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsals and six-and-a-half of actual filming–was rough, Branagh admitted: “The organization of it was sort of like a military maneuver.” But, he said, the music “fantastically engaged” everyone, both cast and crew. Especially challenging to all was his decision to film many of the song-and-dance sequences without a great deal of editing and camera tricks. “We did shoot sequences often in uninterrupted takes, which united everybody in a kind of terror” of making mistakes, the director-star laughed. But he felt that the theatrical result made the practice worth it: “The thrill of seeing a whole number done in one [take]…puts the audience there in a different way,” he noted.
Branagh allowed that the film–neither standard Shakespeare nor standard musical–presented a marketing challenge. But he feels that if given the chance, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” will appeal to audiences across the board. “It puts a smile on your face,” he emphasized, “because it’s an uncynical film, and I think it’s thrown some people who wish to feel as though we’re doing something rather cleverer than we are. I mean, we’re being quite silly, the play is quite silly, the genre’s quite silly…. Essentially, it was made to put a smile on peoples’ faces, to amuse, and also to allow, as the play does, observations [on the relationship between men and women] and melancholy to come through, to be available to those who wish to respond to that.”
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” is a Miramax Pictures release.