Labor of like

A Shakespearean musical sweet to the eye but bland to the taste.

BARDOLOTRY, like all forms of hero worship, is a process of petrifaction. Scholars who get all uppity about directors stage Shakespeare's plays in unconventional settings and dress not only ignore the Bard's own cheerful anachronisms (the clocks of Rome in Julius Caesar, every female part being played by a teenage boy), but miss out on the rich results that an unexpected friction between a play and its treatment may afford.

LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST

directed by Kenneth Branagh

with Kenneth Branagh, Alessandro Nivola, Alicia Silverstone, Natascha McElhone, and Nathan Lane

opens June 16 at Harvard Exit

So I'm not about to get offended by Kenneth Branagh's decision to recast his film version of Love's Labour's Lost as a 1930s movie musical. This rarely performed play needs all the shoring up it can get, actually. It's an early comedy with a couple clowns too many and only one truly decent part, the cynic Berowne (gazumped of course by Branagh), who has some questions right from the start about the proposed plan of his friend the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola). This worthy wants to spend three years with a trio of his best companions in cloistered study, fasting one day a week, sleeping three hours a night, and—worst of all—seeing no women. Whether this Renaissance Skinner Box would create enlightened scholars or sleep-deprived lunatics is never answered, because into the court of Navarre comes the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) with several Gallic beauties in tow—and the resolve of all four men soon crumbles.

Branagh's textual cuts leave about an hour of Shakespeare and a half hour of classic songs from the '30s and '40s (Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, etc.), resulting in a Bardish Everyone Says I Love You effect. He's got his usual peaks and valleys of casting, with the worst being Silverstone, who gives no evidence that under her winsome post-teen pout she has the slightest idea of what she's saying. Broadway vet Nathan Lane, however, keeps things lively as the clown Costard, Richard Briers dodders affectionately about as the academic Nathaniel, and song-and-dance man Adrian Lester (Primary Colors) does some lively work as the lover Dumaine.

The real problem, though, with taking a slight piece like Love's Labour's and giving it the musical comedy treatment is that this approach fails to create a tension between subject and approach. The whole point of setting Shakespeare in another place and time is to bring an unexpected insight to the text, not simply to say, "Hey! This reminds me of Top Hat!" Branagh's trifling with a trifle is a pretty but syrupy affair, a bit like sugar-coated honey lumps.

 
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