Though it’s a bit of an overstatement to declare all the world’s William Shakespeare to Kenneth Branagh, there’s no doubt that the Belfast-born actor-director-writer is one of the most accomplished interpreters of the Bard.
Whether it be in theater or film, the 46-year-old Branagh has taken over the mantle from the late Laurence Olivier.
He’s made four feature films based on Shakespeare’s plays including his landmark 1989 “Henry V,” for which he received a best actor and director Oscar nomination, and 1996’s “Hamlet,” the first movie version of the tragedy using the complete text of the play. He also scored a hit with his 1993 version of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
And along the way was, however, his woefully misguided 2000 refashioning of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” as a 1930s musical comedy. “It ought to be delightful but isn’t,” wrote Times movie critic Kenneth Turan. “Worst of all perhaps is ‘Lost’s’ smug air of pleasure at how clever it thinks it’s being . . . .”
His fifth Shakespeare adaptation, “As You Like It,” is going straight to the small screen. The comedy starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Kevin Kline and Alfred Molina premieres Tuesday on HBO, which purchased the film while Branagh was editing it. It will play in theaters, however, in England.
Branagh has set the romantic comedy (which examines the power of love), in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century, an era when the country opened its doors to Western merchants, many of them English. These merchants and their families lived in enclaves called “treaty ports.”
Branagh devised the idea of setting “As You Like It” in Japan about 15 years ago after visiting Kyoto, where he became besotted with the landscape and culture of the country.
Relaxing in his suite at the Beverly Hilton during a recent visit to Los Angeles, the easygoing Branagh admits it took a long time to ascertain what would and wouldn’t work if the play was moved to Japan. “How do we resolve the idea of Westerners? Do we have Japanese actors, if any? You are trying to analyze whether fundamentally it can seem organic and whether you are paying a bit price for certain moments where perhaps you feel the play is fighting or straining [against the concept].”
He recalls a conversation he had with a former mentor, one in which Branagh told him he was going to do a production of “Romeo and Juliet” set in contemporary Belfast. “He said it’s absolutely fine to do that, but if you are exploiting a religious feud, letting that be part of what makes it contemporary, unfortunately you have got to bear in mind it’s a household feud and there will be a price to pay for turning it into a religious one.”
Branagh recently had played the role of the fool Touchstone, portrayed by Molina in the film, for more than a year on the London stage as well as on tour throughout the country. Branagh opted not to appear in “As You Like It,” the first time he has not starred in one of his Bard movies, because he had long wanted to work with Molina -- “I thought he would be a wonderful Touchstone” -- and it was a very tight shoot and schedule.
One of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays, “As You Like It” is set in the magical Forest of Arden, where the beautiful Rosalind (Howard), the daughter of a banished duke (Brian Blessed), is forced to flee her uncle’s (also Blessed) court. Accompanying her on her journey is her cousin Celia (Romola Garai). Fearing she’ll be discovered by her uncle’s men, Rosalind disguises herself as a boy. The guise proves advantageous when she decides to test the love and devotion of her admirer Orlando (David Oyelowo), who has also been exiled from the court with his jealous brother (Adrian Lester) in pursuit and trying to kill him.
Kline, who has played such Shakespeare heroes and villains as Falstaff, Hamlet and Richard III on the New York stage, plays the lonely, melancholic philosopher Jaques, who Shakespeare scholars believe represents the playwright himself.
Though Branagh returned to Japan on fact-finding trips before the start of production in 2005, he didn’t shoot the film there but at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex.
“It’s a sister garden to Kew Gardens in London,” explains Branagh. “It’s a great center for the preservation of rare species and has Asian flora and fauna. It hadn’t been shot in before. We weren’t trying to do a historical documentary but, rather, to allow this story to emerge through an impression of the period.”
He also made some changes in the text, including showing the brutal takeover of the duke’s court, as well as beefing up the role of the evil brother
“Scene order is what is subject to a little bit of change,” he adds. “There is sometimes redistribution of dialogue. We have compressed some of the wooing of Orlando and Rosalind. She is the longest part in Shakespeare, and she does go on a bit. . . .”
A modern approach
As with all of his Shakespeare pro- jects, Branagh strove to make the playwright accessible to contemporary audiences.
“What easily happens in performances either in the theater and sometimes in films is to fall into cliché and stereotype of the declamatory voice, where everyone is sort of playing noble people and not simply acting or speaking or holding themselves like normal human beings,” he explains.
“It’s clear from seeing his ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Henry V’ that we feel the same way about how accessible Shakespeare should be and can be without pandering,” says Kline, who worked with Branagh on “Wild Wild West” and “The Road to Eldorado.”
“The thing to do is to make it accessible and immediate without it becoming mundane,” Kline continues. “It still has the tautness of the poetic distillation, the compression of the language and the essence and eloquence of it.”
Kline found there was something “unique and magical” about doing Shakespeare for film. “Whenever I have gone back to the theater in the last 25 years, it’s usually to do Shakespeare mostly because I miss the language that you don’t get in film. You have to go to the theater to get those kind of texts. So to be able to do a film with that much text is amazing.”
Howard, the daughter of Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, fell in love with Shakespeare after seeing Branagh in “Hamlet” when she was a teenager.
“It inspired me to learn more about Shakespeare,” she says. “I remember just staying up late at night practicing the death of Juliet [after seeing the movie].”
She even appeared in an unconventional production of “As You Like It” at the Public Theater in New York, playing Rosalind. But she always felt intimidated tackling the Bard because she felt she wasn’t good enough.
But that changed while working with Branagh. “It made me realize I didn’t have to be so precious,” says Howard. “I am not disgracing Shakespeare if it is not the most perfect thing.”
Oyelowo had also admired Branagh’s Shakespeare work since seeing “Henry V” on television, so playing Orlando was a dream come true for him.
Branagh, he says, “has a very clear idea of the language and his obsession is with clarity and not being overwhelmed as the actor by the language or overwhelming the audience with the language.”
Branagh already knows what Shakespeare play he wants next to adapt for the screen -- “The Winter’s Tale.”
“When I was 18, I had a girlfriend in the National Youth Theatre, and she was in a production of ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ ” Branagh says. “As I was besotted by her, I saw her in every performance for three weeks. It was a very good production, and that put the play in my system. It’s a beautiful play. . . it’s so beautiful. . . “