Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost

Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost
In our teaching of Shakespearean film adaptation to undergraduates, one of the issues that frequently arises in class discussions is the question of how the visuality of the cinematic medium is constructed in tension against the verbal nature of Shakespeare?s dialogue. The tension between the visual and verbal dimensions of filming Shakespeare is created on two levels: firstly, where the poetry of Shakespeare, functioning as word pictures that stimulate and enhance the imagination of the spectator is set against the capacity of film to show rather than tell; and secondly, where the adaptation negotiates with the canonicity of the Shakespearean text through the mode of the popular.1 One recent example is Baz Luhrmann?s Romeo + Juliet (1996) in which the play was made to compete radically with what has been called Luhrmann?s ?mtv?-inspired editing, pacing and styling. 2 Another is Branagh?s Hamlet (1996), where the concentrated effort to retain every single line of the play created its own burden of visualisation.3 The creative energy of a Shakespearean film adaptation is often sustained by the dynamic of creating a visual track to ?match? the play?s dialogue; in other words, by the question of what images can be used to animate or do ?justice? to Shakespeare?s text.
Where Shakespeare on film had once been expected to retain the traits of ?high? theatre and art, complete with ?authentic? period costumes,4 recent adaptations have become more adventurous, liberally adopting popular idioms and surprising expectations of ?Shakespeare? by visual styles drawn from contemporary entertainment.5 Kenneth Branagh?s Love?s Labour?s Lost (2000), the focus of this paper, adapts Shakespeare?s play to the American movie musical, but it depends less on creating a contemporary visual track that runs parallel to the text than on interpolating an aural one which intercepts and weaves another lyric and melodic text into it. Samuel Crowl argues that the musical is a ?very American? genre, which he surmises accounts for the relative lack of success of the film (40).

In our analysis, we will discuss the conversion of Shakespeare?s poetic form into the musical form, and explore how the engagement of the spectator?s aural experience (i.e. through the music and songs) is as important as the visual, if not more so, in negotiating the transfer of Shakespeare to the screen. We have identified three strategies of adaptation which we will discuss in the three sections of this essay firstly, the exchange of poetry with popular song; secondly, the construction of spectatorship and listenership as recovery and recollection; and finally, the performativity that mediates between the poetic and musical forms.

Poetry as Song: ?I?d Rather Charleston?

The most significant alteration Branagh has made to Shakespeare?s play is to excise a large proportion of the text (only 25-30% is retained) and replace it with popular and familiar songs from Hollywood?s Golden Era musicals, from the era of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George and Ira Gershwin, among others. These musicals of the 1930s, 40s and 50s are characterised by the artifice of their setting combined with the artlessness of their delivery; they offered contemporary audiences a fantasy world of opulence and elegance, a fantasy that was in stark counterpoint to an era of economic depression and war. In Branagh?s own words: ?I liked the idea of setting the film at the end of that idyll between wars when everyone was trying to make some sense of a rather chaotic world in which everything seems about to change? (Studio production notes). However, the adaptation, or ?updating?, of Love?s Labour?s Lost is not achieved merely through a substitution of text by image, but through a matching of Shakespeare?s verbal wit to the wit of the songs? tunes and lyrics. The songs in the film replace the Shakespearean dialogue in a way that dissolves the image-dialogue dialectic by matching one form of verbal and aural play (and playfulness) with another.

Although the replacement of central speeches and scenes in Love?s Labour?s Lost by musical numbers appears to depart radically from Branagh?s previous films, which demonstrated that the verse could be successfully wedded with contemporary Hollywood idioms and genres without losing its authentic ring,6 it takes his strategy a step further by persuading us that there is a tonal similarity, even interchangeability, between the musical numbers and Shakespeare?s dialogue, and hence the re-imaging of the play can take place through the re-articulation of its ?music?. Branagh says he

[decided] to cut, for the modern ear and audience, excessively difficult language (which I think many people would concede about this play), replacing what it does thematically with music and with the wit and the invention of those twentieth-century writers in the musical world ? Cole Porter, Irving Berlin ? who have discussed all the essential subjects of love? (Wray and Burnett, 173).

In other words, rather than Shakespeare forming a framework for the musical or the musical forming a framework for Shakespeare?s dialogue, the two forms become interdependent, or conjunctive rather than disjunctive, through the songs which bind them.

The matching of Shakespeare to the musical is achieved by formally mirroring the pattern of word-play evident in the verse of Love?s Labour?s Lost. As H. R. Woudhuysen, the editor of the Arden edition of the play, notes:

Love?s Labour?s Lost is a play that [is f]ull of parallels and patterns in which arrangement and ornament are ends in themselves. Its characteristic style shows a pleasure not just in carefully worked-out and formal structural devices or in playful punning, rhyming and metrical experimentation and linguistic dexterity, but in the verbal texture of repetition and allusion. (47-48)

The play revels in word-games of many sorts, including repetitions, inversions, neologisms, and parallelisms. In the first meeting between Navarre and the Princess, the latter deftly turns the former?s gallant greetingÑ?Fair Princess, welcome to the court of Navarre? (2.1.90)Ñon its head: ?Fair? I give you back again, and welcome? I have not yet? (2.1.91).7 Navarre follows with ?You shall be welcome, madam, to my court? (2.1.95), and the Princess counters again with ?I will be welcome then? (2.1.96). In this brief exchange, ?welcome? is uttered four times, each picking up a thread where the previous left off. The repetitions build up a richness of the text, as opposed to the richness of imagery, which produces an allusiveness that Woudhuysen notes ?works from within, not from outside, the play? (48). This helps ?create its own self-absorbed world in which it constantly turns its attention in upon itself? (48). It is this quality of self-absorption and enclosure that Branagh takes up in the songs, whose rhythm and repetition of tune and lyrics match and mirror the word-play in the text.

However, the film does not simply replace one form of word-play with another: the words of the play are not simply substituted for songs, but are interwoven into the musical through a similar matching of words. This takes place a number of times in the film. In the first encounter between Berowne and Rosaline, their mutual question ?Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?? (2.1.114-115) becomes the pretext to jumpstart the energetic Jerome Kern number ?I Won?t Dance?. In another instance, when Berowne makes his big speech on love in the library and reflects on the men?s inconstancy towards their vows of abstinence, the opening lines (4.3.286-289) are recited in iambic pentameter, but because he also taps out the iambic rhythm with his feet, the conflation of the Shakespearean verse with the rhythm of the musical form cannot be overlooked. At the climax of that speechÑ?And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods/ Make heaven drowsy with the harmony? (4.3.337-338) the word ?heaven? forms a thread or cue to lead into the opening lines ?Heaven, I?m in heaven? of Irving Berlin?s classic ?Cheek to Cheek?. In the words of the film?s musical director, Patrick Doyle: ?[The songs] become singing soliloquies, almost like arias in the dramaÉ? (Brawley and Thompson), providing a different take on Stephen Banfield?s theory of ?melopoetics?, which is cited and explained by Geoffrey Block as a condition where ?by the end of the songwriting process, and usually at the beginning, the music and words form a symbiotic, if not always inseparable, union? (89).

Branagh?s Love?s Labour?s Lost uses the conventions of the musical8 to re-visualize Shakespeare?s scenes by emphasizing the re-creation of performance tone and style over any social re-contextualization of plot or character.9 The musical form in Love?s Labour?s Lost re-orders the dramatic structure, firstly by pacing the development of the action around the high points of the song-and-dance sequences. For instance, in the second part of 1.1, Don Armado is introduced in person instead of through his letter, which makes his exaggerated physical appearance and manner part of his verbal display, his eccentrically angled moustache complementing his florid presentation of the law-breakers to the King. Shakespeare?s introduction of Don Armado in 1.1-2 parodies the learning versus love theme very early in the play, but Branagh?s musical shifts the emphasis from Armado?s hilarious erudition to its physical counterpart in his performance of his self-image. Instead of unfolding his banter with Moth, his melancholy in 1.2 swiftly develops into an energetic burlesque of ?I Get a Kick Out of You?. Set initially in a picturesque inner courtyard with a flame-orange creeper on its walls, the scene of the song moves through several scenarios for Armado?s gentlemanly pretensions: the scene in the park where he first caught sight of Jaquenetta, a fireside study, a drawing room, and a two-seater airplane, each with appropriate costumes and props and capped by a slapstick moment for Moth. Armado?s performance of ?I Get a Kick Out of You? thus physicalizes and images the satiric function of his verbal ostentation in the play.

This sequence also illustrates, secondly, how the interplay of main plot and sub-plot used by Shakespeare in all his comedies is re-formulated in terms of the variation and modulation of song-and-dance styles. Armado?s self-display in love is a comic variation of the sweeping glamour of the main lovers? sequences; his clumsy enactment of regular dance movements is picked up later with a gentler humour in the ensemble balletic number led by Holofernia (a school-marm version of Holofernes), ?The Way You Look Tonight?. In both sub-plot numbers, the familiarity of the song juxtaposes with the physical humour of its enactment to generate a surprising relationship between character stereotypes from different performance cultures. This form of inter-textuality can be more accurately termed inter-performative, where the performance of Shakespearean and Hollywood roles mutually re-stage the scene and the actor of song and play.

Although the songs in the film stand out as the most memorable instances of Branagh?s playing of Shakespeare as Hollywood musical, the effect of the musical style on the play is extended and pervasive, both in how the dialogue is acted and how it is seen. Explaining the cuts he made during the post-production process to sequences they had already filmed, Branagh says, ?There seemed to be a point at which a song needed to emerge. You could feel it rhythmically. So much of how the film was edited was a virtue of having to adopt some musical sensitivity, not just to the language, but to the rhythm and structure of this new creation, which was a film musical based on a Shakespeare play? (Director?s commentary). Besides re-ordering dramatic structure, a dominant effect of musical conventions on the play is to strengthen the functions of rhythm in its performance. Commenting on the comedy of repetition when the three courtiers each surreptitiously approaches Boyet with a gift (not in the text) to elicit information about his lady (first a glass of wine given by Dumaine, then a loaf of bread by Longaville, and last a cigarette put into his mouth by Berowne) Branagh reveals that ?the physical comedy almost needed to be choreographed, there was something rhythmical required for it? (Director?s commentary).

Technically speaking, the characters? physical moves in and out of shot and the interaction between them in one sequence can be counted out the way one counts out a dance routine. Here the acting correlates to the rhyme structure of the repartee between Boyet and the men in the play, but creates its comedy through a cumulative visual effect. Berowne?s removal of the cigarette after he has achieved his objective of obtaining Rosaline?s name is a joke precisely in the vein of the musical genre?s deft fun with physical gestures, and it changes the tone of Shakespeare?s exchange here and throughout the film.

The formal repetition, which can seem contrived and laborious in the text, is naturalized when presented as musical choreography.10 The four pairs of lovers are a prime instance of the transformation of repetition through a re-formulation of how it is performed. Their complementarity is imaged in the colour coding of their costumes, and embodied in the variation of their individual performance personalities and movements. Thus what otherwise reads as a multiplication of characters without the individuation that would represent a social group is made sense of through our enjoyment of visual pattern, dynamic contrast and symmetry in the spectacle staged by the musical. As Branagh also points out, the more subsidiary couples in the play, Dumaine and Katherine, and Longaville and Maria, have much more prominent roles here as dancers and singers who make up the rhythm and variation of the ensemble performance (Director?s commentary). This symbiosis of play and musical becomes one way of meeting critical reservations that the play?s slight, fanciful plot is overbalanced by elaborate verbal conceits that do not appear to perform a more significant function than their own game. 11 Whereas the word-games of the male enclosure of Navarre are often treated sternly by critics of the play as an immaturity on both their part and Shakespeare?s to be corrected later,12 in Branagh?s musical the songs? charming lightness of tone acts as an entirely enjoyable display of the charming silliness of love. As such, they quite possibly recuperate the charm of that dazzling verbal inventiveness which centuries of change in our idioms ? and of expecting a particular kind of serious meaning in Shakespeare?s language ? has dulled.

Spectatorship as Recollection: ?They Can?t Take That Away From Me?

The second strategy of adaptation in Love?s Labour?s Lost involves the role of the spectator and his knowledge of the songs as well as the feeling of memory and nostalgia they evoke. Relegated to the status of ?minor Shakespeare?,13 Love?s Labour?s Lost appears an unexpected choice for a director famed for making Shakespeare accessible to the modern masses. And yet, its relative obscurity is what allows the songs ?to work its magic?, to use the popular expression. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Branagh acknowledges the creative freedom that the play allows, since he had ?the added advantage of knowing that the audience would not be sitting and waiting for the balcony scene or for Hamlet to start talking to the skull of Yorick? (?Trust?). Whereas in other film adaptations, the spectator?s knowledge of Shakespeare is often crucial to the negotiation of Shakespeare and the popular, 14 in Love?s Labour?s Lost it is the spectator?s recognition of the musical form (and crucially, the songs) that performs this function. The sense of expectation the film draws on is not the anticipation of famous speeches or scenes from the Shakespearean play but rather the recollection of the experience of old musicals from that bygone era. However, the spectatorial experience in Love?s Labour?s Lost is constructed not through explicit visual memory but through a more subtle process of what is known in the field of psychology as ?implicit memory?. 15

Samuel Crowl, writing on the film, notes that ?[t]he songs of the 1930s that I inherited from my parents have not survived to swirl through the imaginations of the rock generation. They just didn?t get the film?s daft and deft musical jokes? (40). However, Love?s Labour?s Lost recalls not so much a specific musical from the 1930s or 40s but rather the feel of one. It is dependent on what can only be expressed as a trace of memory, a palimpsest, rather than a re-enactment of an actual scene or flashback.

Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost 8.9 of 10 on the basis of 2402 Review.