Shakespeare at the Inns of Court

The New Straits Times, March 29 2000
by Ralph Berry

Kenneth Branagh's films, said John Andrews, are palpable hits "that have revived the sagging fortunes of a 435-year-old has-been and transformed him into today's hottest screenwriter". A touch over the top, you may feel, but the point is fairly made. And the occasion demanded a non- shrinking tribute. This was the annual Gielgud award of the Shakespeare Guild, given this year to Kenneth Branagh. The Shakespeare Guild, whose president is John Andrews, operates out of Washington, D.C. (For more information, write to The Shakespeare Guild at 2141 Wyoming Avenue NW, Suite 41, Washington, D.C. 20008, USA). Its award is the Golden Quill. Past honorees are Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Zoe Caldwell and Judi Dench.

This year for the first time the award ceremony was staged in England, at the Middle Temple. This is one of the Inns of Court in London, which belong to the four legal societies that have the exclusive right of admitting persons to practise at the Bar. The Middle Temple has genuine Shakespearean associations, and the Great Hall holds some 500 celebrants. "All that was most sonorous of name and title," as Evelyn Waugh wrote, "was there for the beano."

Philip Glazer, the US Ambassador to the UK, greeted the guests. Then followed an evening of messages and Shakespearean vignettes from numerous well-wishers. These included Helen Bonham Carter, now sadly separated from Branagh, who went on stage to testify to "an extraordinary man"; nothing was heard of Emma Thompson.

Billy Crystal wrote that "Kenneth has been to Shakespeare what Viagra has been to me", a tribute that does nothing but credit to all parties. Richard Briers wryly thanked Branagh for turning him from a well-loved comedy actor into a well-respected classical actor. "My income dropped 65 per cent but my family respects me."

Patrick Doyle, the composer, played the Agincourt theme from Henry V on the piano. Messages were received from Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Woody Allen. Branagh is well liked and well appreciated by massive cohorts of friends and colleagues. He observes Dr Johnson's dictum: "A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair."

After the climactic presentation of the Golden Quill and Branagh's graceful response, we all broke for the refreshments, or would have if the topography of the Great Hall had not solidified the crowd into a congealed mass. I wondered if things had been better organised in Shakespeare's day.

But gallant waitresses pushed through the corridors bearing trays of cocktail sausages and wine. The throng found escape from the corridors into side chambers. Eventually the famine was al-leviated; loaves and fishes were made available for all, under the gaze of past worthies of the Middle Temple whose portraits approved the event. Branagh stayed on, still signing autographs for his many admirers. He has stamina, that one.

Place is authenticity, the experience we all yearn for. The Great Hall of the Middle Temple - not open to the general public - is a secular temple to Shakespeareans. It was here that the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night took place. The diary of John Manningham, a law student, records that Twelfth Night was presented in the Middle Temple on Feb 2 (Candlemas), 1602. Shakes-peare would very probably have been a cast member on that occasion. I tag him for Fabian (easy, nondescript, but with a couple of effective late speeches).

Be sure that I looked hard at the Great Hall for evidence of performance values. One enters the Hall through one of two large doorways, side by side. (The doors have been removed.) At the far end of the Hall is a platform, on which the evening's ceremonies took place. The seats are arranged, backs to the entrances, facing the platform. But in Shakespeare's day the seating would have faced the other way, and the doorways would have been the indispensable entrances to the acting space, stage left and stage right.

There's a Minstrel Gallery directly above the entrances, which in principle could have been used as the upper stage (balcony in Romeo and Juliet, Harfleur wall in Henry V). But there's too much wood panelling fronting the gallery for the audience to get much of a view of the players, and anyway Twelfth Night does not call for an upper stage scene. It is possible that Twelfth Night was written expressly for an inn of court. The reference to "bay windows transparent as barricadoes, and clerestories towards the south-north" (4.2.40-41) has been taken to refer to the oriel windows of the Middle Temple Hall. The line would vibrate strangely for its Candlemas audience. There's more outside. Shakespeare makes the pivotal scene in Part One of Henry VI take place in the Temple Garden (2.4). He imagines the quarrel of the roses to have started among a group of high-spirited aristocrats. "Within the Temple Hall we were too loud;/ The garden here is more convenient." (3-4) So they pluck the roses, red and white, as the badge of their allegiance. This is the origin of the Wars of the Roses, the Civil Wars that engulfed England for many years. Surely Shakespeare must have walked in the Temple Garden.

I entirely agree with Hannah Betts (The Times, Aug 19, 1999) that a return to Shakespeare's local roots will take us much closer to Shakespeare than the overso-phisticated performances at the great State theatres. She had just seen The Tempest at Lincoln's Inn, and much preferred it to the "bizarre late Tudor Euro-Disney" at the new Southwark Globe. The Lancashire developments at Hoghton Tower, of which I hope to write soon, will take us even closer to Shakespeare's early experiences.

Meantime, there is Branagh's new film of Love's Labour's Lost, to be released this month. I saw it at the BAFTA preview. This film is a snack, not a nourishing meal, but perfectly acceptable so long as one is content to settle for canapes.

Branagh's central conceit is to set the action in the 1930s, making the play into a musical comedy film of the era. All the devices of the genre are deployed. From time to time the action stops so that the cast can break into a song-and-dance routine. There is even a homage to Busby Berkeley, when the Princess of France and her retinue perform a well- choreographed swimming ballet. The songs come variously from Gerswhin, Cole Porter and others. One is caressed with `Stormy Weather' and `There may be trouble ahead'.

Since all this takes up time, the needs of narrative are supplied by Navarretone News. The hectoring, strident voice of the announcer goes along with news of the gathering crisis in 1939. Here I thought that Branagh committed an error of taste. The events of the war, alluded to in newsreel black and white, are altogether overwhelming for the admittedly sombre conclusion of the play. Berowne (Branagh) goes off to become a field dresser, a heavy-handed analogue for the year's social work in a hospital that Rosaline prescribes for him. I like 1930s musicals, but 1940s war movies are something else.

Still, there are incidental pleasures. The main setting appears to be the quadrangle of an Oxford college (though the film was shot in Shepperton Studios). The ladies make a magical evening entrance, being punted along the Isis in boats illuminated with glowing Chinese lanterns.

Of the actors, the ladies are charming, and the dancing is sprightly. Branagh is a witty and well-spoken Berowne, relishing both his dance routines and his (few) chances of verse-speaking. He makes the most of "And when love speaks, the voice of all the gods/ Make heaven drowsy with the harmony." (4.3.319-20)

I missed the Muscovites though; no director should pass up the chance to make the four young men place their hands on their hips and kick out their legs in the Russian style. Timothy Small's Don Armado is a good-humoured lampoon of the Spanish diplomatic-military. Ho- lofernes was converted into "Holofernia", thus enabling Ge-raldine McEwan's exquisitely lubricious Oxford don to convey intimations of strange sexual pleasures. They left in her line about "their daughters profit very greatly under you" (4.2.74), which male actors are accustomed to profit by.

This Love's Labour's Lost makes for an amusing couple of hours. But these things, as Bacon says, are but toys.

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