Saturday, January 28, 2017

Brush Up on Your Shakespeare

Well, we seem to be working our way through Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare. This week's entry, Love's Labour's Lost (2000), is quite the oddball. If you haven't heard of it, it mixes one of Shakespeare's lesser known comedies with well-known musical numbers from Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, and Kern.

It is set in the early 20th century, before The War (one or the other), in the kingdom of Navarre. The king and three friends pledge to live in seclusion from woman and dedicate themselves to philosophy and fasting. As we learned in Siddhartha, it's what all the kids are into. This is all explained in a newsreel, something Branagh uses several times to condense and replace Shakespeare's exposition.

They all sign the pledge, but Berowne (Kenneth Branagh) doesn't think they will be able to keep it. In fact, right away, they have to make an exception, because the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) is coming to discuss a treaty. Although they make her and her three ladies in waiting camp outside the castle, they do meet with her. I'm sure you can guess what happens to these four men and four women.

That's right! Pillow fights and musical numbers! I Won't Dance, I Get a Kick Out of You, The Way You Look Tonight, and many others. Also, clowns, including Nathan Lane as an entertainer and Timothy Spall as Armado, a "fantastical Spaniard", who breaks the rules by falling for a peasant girl, saucy Stefania Rocca. A mix-up of letters leads to a musical number from Geraldine McEwan, a Shakespearean actress playing an elderly scholar (The Way You Look Tonight, quite lovely), and the boys infatuation is revealed. There are a few more mix-ups, an S&M-themed masked ball (Face the Music and Dance) and a surprisingly serious ending.

I'm not 100% sure this all works. About 3/4 of the original text is cut out, replaced with songs and newsreel. In places, you get the concept: Some of the dialog is in rhymes, and that leads smoothly into the tricky rhymes and rhythms of 30's musical standards. This play is known as one of Shakespeare's trickiest and frothiest, so that works.

The actors are half Shakespearean, half show-biz. You may not take to Silverstone reciting Shakespeare right away, but she does a neat trick where she acts like a smart girl acting like an airhead, acting all pompous and Shakespearean. It kind of works.

So we lose a lot of the original play, including the play within the play that the clowns put on. But in it's place, you get Anthony Lane singing There's No Business Like Show Business. I think it's a good trade-off.

Also, this is one of my favorite plays, because I once performed a 1-man, 1-woman version in a tree.

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