Where There's A Will...

The Northern Echo, January 22 2000
by Steve Pratt

I once interviewed Kenneth Branagh in bed. And before anyone gets completely the wrong idea let me explain that I was between the sheets in a London hotel room and he was in the back of a chauffeur-driven limousine on his way to some publicity junket in Leeds.

The subject of our chat was his Hollywood-made movie Dead Again, a Hitchcockian thriller which he directed and starred in with then-wife Emma Thompson.

Our busy schedules prevented a face-to-face interrogation session but nothing is beyond our Ken when it comes to promoting a project and a telephone talk was duly arranged.

That's typical of a man who may be famous for popularising Shakespeare on screen but remains someone who's as happy to natter about football as he is the intricacies of filming the Bard. He may have a reputation as a bit of a luvvie but he's a man of the people as his commercially-successful forays into Shakespearean territory on both stage and screen have proved.

That he should, this week, have received the Golden Quill from the Washington-based Shakespeare Guild as 'the greatest Shakespearean of our day' is no surprise. His films of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet have done more to make those plays accessible to a modern, non-theatregoing audience than any boring old BBC version in their less-than-riveting series of televised Shakespeares.

He insisted on directing and starring in his films too which, to be honest, seemed to overstretch him at times but that was a small price to pay. Who else could have put Speed and The Matrix star Keanu Reeves in Shakespeare (as he did in Much Ado About Nothing) and get away with it? And the cast of his four -hour Hamlet was notable as the first - and almost certainly the last - time a movie cast list included Ken Dodd, Gerard Depardieu and Robin Williams.

Branagh's cinema success has also been greatly responsible for the current interest in putting the Bard on screen. Since a pre-Titantic Leonardo DiCaprio starred in an MTV-style Romeo And Juliet, we had a glut of relatively straight screen Shakespeare including Othello with Laurence Fishbourne and teen-slanted variations like Ten Things I Hate About Her (a cunning re-take on Taming Of The Shrew).

Clearly, where there's a Will, there's a way of turning it into something to appeal to today's youthful cinemagoers.

Now the Bard of Avon is calling on Branagh yet again but what he's done to Love's Labour's Lost is going to get a lot of purists hot under the collar. The loser, they will say, is Shakespeare himself. For Branagh has turned the romantic comedy into a musical - and not just any old musical. He has introduced songs by Cole Porter and George Gershwin into the plot.

As the film lasts just over 90 minutes and there are half-a-dozen songs as well as Busby Berkeley dance numbers, the time allotted to the words of Will is not all that great.

Branagh unveiled his new movie to the world at a special champagne-and-canapes screening last week. The result is great fun, very tuneful and vastly entertaining. You do come out humming the tunes not reciting the text but the novelty value alone is worth the price of admission.

Ken himself both stars and directs (surprise, surprise), and he's surrounded himself with such regular, reliable members of his unofficial repertory company as Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan. But he's also been brave enough - and commercially canny enough - to cast Americans in some leading roles. Clueless star Alicia Silverstone saying Shakespeare sounds a recipe for disaster but as far as I'm concerned, it works.

Others in the audience expressed themselves less pleased with the result of Branagh's labours, but he's attracted criticism from the word go for daring to tamper with the classics. I'll bet when Love's Labour's Lost is released in the spring, audiences will revel in the glamorous costumes, wonderful songs, good performances and perhaps even the odd bit of Shakespearean verse.

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