Branagh Puts a New Spin on Old Will

New York Daily News, June 9 2000
by Denene Millner
*thanks to Paula Brait

Dig this: The sensuality of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is nestled in the "woo baby" of Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye's classic duet "You Are Everything."

At least, that's what one of Kenneth Branagh's teachers said when he introduced him to the Elizabethan playwright with a tape of the duo's Motown hit.

"He said, 'Tell me what that's about - what you're getting from that.' And we said, 'I don't know,'" Branagh remembers. "He said, 'Sex! That's part of the nature of this duet, so let's look at 'Romeo and Juliet' and find the sex.' Immediately, we were intrigued.

"It wasn't just a stunt. It was simply a graphic way of saying, 'Look, there are all sorts of different art forms - popular music, plays - that talk about things that we all experience,'" Branagh adds. "And so you were introduced in a way that was fun and meaningful, and that sparked up all kinds of arguments and debates."

Branagh admits that it was unorthodox. But it explains why his approach to Shakespeare as an actor and director has been equally, well, unconventional.

Film Stars in a New Light

In 1987, he directed a stage production of "Twelfth Night" set to music by Paul McCartney, while his 1989 screen adaptation of "Henry V" was generally regarded as the dark, atmospheric opposite of Laurence Olivier's lavish, colorful version. He also loaded up his 1993 "Much Ado About Nothing" with all-stars not associated with Shakespeare, including Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves.

And now, Branagh is at it again. Today, his "Love's Labour's Lost" comes to the big screen as a 1930s musical - keeping with his penchant for shaking up Shakespeare.

And shake he does.

Starring Branagh, Alicia Silverstone and Nathan Lane, "Love" is a look at what happens when four friends swear off love. The catch here is that they fall in love anyway - and, à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, they're prone to breaking out in song and dance to express just how pleased they are to be in love.

Branagh says his interpretation of "Love" runs true to form with his recipe for Shakespeare, which combines traditionalism and historical context with contemporary moods - an "exciting challenge," he adds, that keeps his films from becoming "nostalgic and retro."

"With Shakespeare, it's always the issue of making the connection," he says. "And I think that sometimes it's good that we have to work for that. But it is true that there is always this issue of ... divesting people of their fear and intimidation and boredom with it."

Shakespeare for All

His approach may not be for purists, but Branagh really isn't interested in pleasing them anyway. He knows that his work is a far cry from the lushness of Olivier's Shakespeare - the films to which his work is most often compared. And while he doesn't really mind the comparisons, Branagh thinks the Shakespeare purists who lambaste his work just don't understand what he's trying to do: He just wants to bring the playwright's work to the people.

"Maybe it's because I'm from a working-class background," he says, "but in a way, it drives the resistance to that social devisiveness that springs from the people who claim, 'I'm clever because I understand Shakespeare and you're not because you don't,'" he says. "I'm a populist in the sense that I think it should be available to all.

"I don't mean that it should be watered down or diluted or patronize people," he adds. "But in this case, there are real issues. The language is 400 years old. You have to open the door for people.

"If that reaction is ultimately, 'Well, now that I've had a chance to see it in an unfettered way, I found out I don't actually have any connection to it,' then that's fine."

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