Funny Shakespeare

Studio Magazine - Spécial Cannes 93, 1993
By Kenneth Branagh   [Copyright "Us"]
**Thanks to Isabelle for the article and translation

"What has always been for anybody the worst thing in the world? A bad performance of Shakespeare. But, on the other hand, an incredible feeling of realism emanates from a good interpretation of Shakespeare.

The concerns which seem to have tormented him four hundred years ago are exactly the same ones as today. What is he talking about? The human condition. And in "Much Ado About Nothing" he simply talks about the pleasure and the fear that love can prompt.

Nowadays you could say, like when you just have seen a film, it is a story which bucks you up. The way Claudio and Hero fall in love with each other smacks of a fairy tale. They burst with passion and sexual vitality. The film was made just like this image: sexy, fleshy, sensual. There are grapes, wine, heat, sweat. And bodies...

When you adapt Shakespeare, I think that above all you try to feel what makes the essence of the text. And God knows that, in this play particularly, sexuality is everywhere. It is the leading strand. And since the story takes place in Italy, I wanted to create an atmosphere which is a little Latin, with hot-blooded characters. I even explained to the actors that I wanted them to play a bit as if they were in "The Godfather". I wanted intense, instinctive reactions. It was in fact the only way to get this story to work, a story which is, all things considered, rather ridiculous. It is a vaudeville, a farce full of misunderstandings, nothing more.

I have always known I wanted to combine British actors' Shakespearean experience with the kind of daring that American actors can have. So I told them from the start not to try to imitate an accent which, anyway, woud have sounded fake. I wanted them to play their part in their own shoes. Everything went off smoothly, everybody had a very humble attitude. Nobody played "the Hollywood star". Nobody complained about the financial or material conditions. And yet it is hot in Tuscany in August and every actor was covered with fifteen tonnes of costume. Honestly we looked like the Brotherhood of the Knights of Perspiration!

The idea of making Shakespeare more accessible is something very complex. When you do that, you must keep in mind that afterwards you are not going to burn all the copies of the book. But we were very ambituous. After all, what we were trying to do was just filming the greatest romantic comedy ever written by an author aged four hundred years, with an international cast, in a foreign country. That's all!"

*The actors and the characters*

"Benedick, whom I have played on stage before, is one of the most attractive characters of Shakespeare. But not in a classic way. His power of attraction is wholly spiritual. It is his soul.

Emma and myself play Beatrice and Benedick, the two most romantic beings in all literature. Emma is fantastic as Beatrice. Beatrice is a model of female independence for the 90s. She makes all her own decisions, she takes responsability for herself and she doesn't let anyone tread on her toes.

Dogberry is played sometimes as a brutish lout, sometimes as someone very pompous. I myself wanted to make him a real psychopath, a really dangerous bloke. Michael Keaton jumped at the opportunity. It was a challenge. We went very far in these scenes. Very far... And that brought a lot to the film.

Don John is the prototype of several "baddies" in Shakespeare's plays. One of these characters where you never understand why they are so evil. Keanu Reeves immersed himself so much in the role that he started to scare us even when he didn't act! His performance is burning like live coals.

Robert Sean Leonard was ideal for the part of Claudio. Young, strong, sexy. He can be poetic without losing any virility for all that. Kate Beckinsale played his fiancée, it is her first part in a film. She is ravishing but she too is able to bring a real firm-handedness to this kind of role, which is often too vapid.

Denzel Washington gave a wonderful gravity to the part of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. He made him very touching. I wouldn't be surprised if Denzel became a director. I felt it through the questions he asks, which are always very precise. I must confess he impessed me a lot."

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