Kenneth Branagh shows Shakespeare's fun side

Monday, June 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Kenneth Branagh wants everyone to meet his good friend. You might have heard of him: Older guy, has a way with words. Kind of old-fashioned, known to intimidate schoolchildren.

But that's not the Shakespeare Mr. Branagh knows. His Bard knows how to cut a rug and sing romantic show tunes. He's a fun kind of guy. He's not to be feared.

"When I started reading Shakespeare, I found it very meaningful and resonant and enjoyable," Mr. Branagh said during a recent visit to Dallas. "I felt as though one could experience Shakespeare, not just understand it. One could experience the peculiar power and comedy."

They've rarely been more peculiar than in Love's Labour's Lost, Mr. Branagh's musical version of a minor Shakespeare comedy. Opening this summer, the film marks a wide left turn for the man who directed a masterful full-length version of Hamlet and started his film career with a lauded adaptation of Henry V. Both films hit home with their streamlined intelligence and startling clarity.

This time, Mr. Branagh takes his crowd-pleasing mission to extreme lengths. What, you don't remember the scene where the eight pining lovers break into "I'd Rather Charleston With You?" What about the vaudeville routines with Nathan Lane? What in the name of Gershwin is going on here?

"Having done the full-length Hamlet, I feel as though I've got some money in the bank," explains Mr. Branagh. Sporting a stylishly scruffy look, Mr. Branagh has a way of speaking in angular, ready-to-print prose. It's no wonder he's so enamored of the great poet.

Regardless of whether Love's Labour's Lost makes you want to face the music and dance or face the exits and leave, it's hard not to admire the missionary zeal with which Mr. Branagh approaches his muse. He has long been touched by the magic of Shakespeare, and long determined to present his works in a manner that groundlings and elitists can find equally delightful. He's well aware that Shakespeare wasn't always a litmus test for high culture - indeed, he's aware that high culture itself is a modern concept. And he knows the Shakespearean tradition of taking risks with the material and giving actors a long leash.

"He was clearly an entertainer," says Mr. Branagh. "He used high and low comedy. His comic roles obviously offered actors and directors a chance to elaborate and develop what he had written, sometimes to excess. I'd like to think he would have a sense of humor about this."

Mr. Branagh is the populist Shakespearean of his day. He has a soft spot for Hollywood, and has lent his talents to such non-classical films as Dead Again, Wild Wild West and Woody Allen's Celebrity. Once a creature of the stage, he now relishes the accessibility and directness of the film medium.

"So many people can't get to the theater or can't afford to go to the theater," he says. "So many theaters can ill afford to put on Shakespeare plays with sufficient actors and a sense of scale."

Most important, Mr. Branagh wants us to know that his friend can be your friend, too. "It seems strange that a playwright who was obviously an entertainer of both high-brow and low-brow tastes could at one moment be revered for his genius and universality, and yet be dismissed by so many people as boring or trite," says Mr. Branagh. "There was a certain sort of exclusivity to Shakespeare that I rather resented."