Shakespeare Meets Busby Berkeley

by David Lister
The Independent (UK), April 17 1999

On "A Stage" at Shepperton film studios a set has been built to resemble an Oxbridge college. From the door of the School of Social Philosophy appears a tap-dancing Kenneth Branagh, in top hat, white tie and tails, and singing Fred Astaire's "Dancing Cheek To Cheek".

If that is not surprising enough, this is a film of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. It is being tipped to be the next film after Shakespeare in Love and Romeo and Juliet to make the Bard hip for young audiences and win its stars acclaim.

Branagh, who is directing and starring, has added Thirties song-and-dance numbers to Shakespeare's text. It is a home-grown film, financed by the National Lottery through Pathe Films in Britain. But the song-and-dance Shakespeare concept has so intrigued one of the world's most powerful film producers, Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, that he will distribute it in America, guaranteeing huge publicity and access to thousands of screens.

The film has a British and American cast, with Alicia Silverstone, Natascha McElhone and Adrian Lester among those joining Branagh. But it is particularly important for the British film industry, as it is the first film musical to be made here since Absolute Beginners more than 12 years ago.

For this reason the Arts Council has given its first bursary to a young choreographer to study how to work with film actors, as choreographers in Britain have so little experience of this. The council was urged to do this by the film's principal choreographer, Stuart Hopps, who is founder chairman of the British Association of Choreographers.

He says: "It struck me that since this was the first musical for some time, it would be a marvellous training for a young choreographer. There are so many technical things to learn about the filming of dance - understanding tracking shots, the way the lens of the camera curves and what seems linear on the stage becomes rounded on the screen, taking a musical number and breaking it down."

The beneficiary of the bursary is Alison Golding, 30. She said: "It's very different to the stage work and pop promos I do, being wide-screen rather than video. Doing the tap routines with the actors took a long time, as it is new to them. But to be around someone like Ken Branagh (who) has such, vision, drive and energy, becomes very infectious."

Love's Labour's Lost is a comedy of love and romance in which four young noblemen, led by the king of Navarre, swear to renounce women for three years and promptly fall in love with the Princess of France and her companions.

The men attempt to salvage their honour in the face of much sharp-witted teasing from the women.

Branagh, after a day of numerous quick changes from tap dancing in top hat and tails to T-shirt and sitting behind the camera, took a break from filming to tell me how he believed the song-and-dance concept would not just revitalise the British musical film but was a much more natural appendage to Shakespeare than it might seem.

"The vocabulary of romantic love is depressingly narrow," he said. "Cole Porter and George Gershwin use the words of Shakespeare. "They Can't take That Away From Me" sounds quite natural when a couple part in the play. And there are so many references in the play to music and dance as elements of courtship. Shakespeare goes on in this play about women's eyes and the power of a look across a crowded room. The idea of love at first sight is something that sits very well in the world of musicals."

All the songs in the play, even such classics as "Dancing Cheek To Cheek", are used to further the action rather than interrupt it. The music, said Branagh, "allows people to surrender to the verse. Some of the speeches are unquestionably arias. I would like to think that the verse may be given literally a better chance to sing than otherwise it might be."

The film had an unusually long three-week rehearsal period, necessary to learn dance as well as verse speaking. Branagh spent the first day showing the cast Top Hat and other Thirties musical films.

Considering whether Shakespeare in Love will help his project, Branagh said: "It's hard for me to work out whether in the midst of millennium fever this reclamation of Shakespeare is a reminder to ourselves that there has been a great achievement, or whether it's just a fashion thing.

"But Shakespeare in Love and Romeo and Juliet have, in crass terms, allowed Shakespeare to be 'cool.' And increased interest in Shakespeare's life is probably a good thing."

Of his own project he has no doubts. "The play has magic in the web of it. It gets under the skin," he said, sounding uncannily like a musical number. "And the film is a sort of genre of its own. It's not like anything you've ever seen."

The producer, David Barron, is promising a release before Christmas, which, by accident or design, makes it just eligible for next year's Oscars.

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