On Stage: Branagh, the Box Office and the Bard

By Christopher Rawson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 18 September 2000

Covering Cecil's Suzi Hofrichter and the Toronto Film Festival premiere of her movie, "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," meant also spending time with the movie's other stars, especially Bardmaster Kenneth Branagh.

Since I'm a dues-paying member of the Shakespeare-Academic Complex, I owe a particular debt to Branagh. It was the success of his "Henry V" (1989) that jump-started the recent flood of Shakespeare movies -- Baz Luhrman's "Romeo + Juliet," Branagh's "Much Ado About Nothing," Trevor Nunn's "Twelfth Night," Michael Hoffman's "Midsummer Night's Dream," Julie Taymor's "Titus Andronicus" and even John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love," to name just some of the best.

So imagine my dismay when Branagh said at Saturday's press conference that he was "giving Shakespeare a bit of a rest." Granted, it was a passing response to a question from an Italian journalist about his musical "Love's Labour's Lost," which she thought wasn't out. "It was released to an indifferent public earlier this year," Branagh joked, "though it will soon be out on DVD for my family."

At the Tony Awards in June, Branagh had told me his next Shakes-pic would probably be a futuristic "Macbeth," but that the financing might depend on "Love's Labour's Lost." So Saturday I asked if that commercial failure might stymie "Macbeth," and he said it was still in his (distant?) plans.

He noted that (oddly, given its popularity) "Macbeth" hasn't featured among the recent films. He also just did an audio version of Richard III and is enthusiastic about playing it -- but probably on stage, since he figures Ian Mc- Kellen's "Richard III" and Al Pacino's "Looking for Richard" have saturated the market for now.

Now, here's an odd parallel. Just as Branagh catalyzed the contemporary Shakes-pic scene, it was Laurence Olivier, with his own "Henry V" (1944) and "Hamlet," who catalyzed an earlier spurt -- Franco Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet" and "Taming of the Shrew," Roman Polanski's "Macbeth," and more. But Olivier never did make the "Macbeth" movie he planned in the '50s.

Why? Because in 1953 he had a great flop with a movie of "The Beggar's Opera," a musical with himself in the lead. Financing for his "Macbeth" immediately dried up.

Let's hope that history doesn't repeat itself!

By the way, I found "Love's Labour's Lost" minor but charming. Some of Branagh's choices are odd (Alicia Silverstone), but some are genius, especially the concluding newsreel and Adrian Lester. The DVD version will include four more Shakespeare scenes, including the play-within-the-play, which was cut because, "when we added the songs, they didn't work -- it became a different kind of film." Branagh says the movie suffered because "it became not cool ... at critics' screenings, it was almost as if they were embarrassed to like it."

SEVEN DEGREES OF PITTSBURGH: Also starring in "Neighbor's Dog" is Lynn Redgrave, who perked up at the mention of Pittsburgh. She's written a play, "The Mandrake Root," which premieres (with her in the cast) Jan. 31 at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater, with CMU faculty Michael Olich as set designer.

Deep in the credits for "Neighbor's Dog" I spotted Jay Brazeau, memorable from several years at the Three Rivers Shakespeare Fest, especially as Cyrano de Bergerac. Brazeau plays a proctologist -- lots of comedy there.

Best of all: On top of everything else in Toronto, I squeezed in the first act of "The Lion King." My object was to see Pittsburgh's adopted son, Ric McMillan, playing the villain, Scar. What fun! What role could allow McMillan such lip-smacking flourish and verbal command? Who could be better in the role, anywhere?

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