‘You That Way, We This Way’: Spectatorship and Song in Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost – Felicia Chan & Yong Li Lan

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 musical[8] 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. Branagh reveals:

I looked at a lot of the films of that era and hoped that something of the feel and the mood comes through in the design rather than specifically borrowing a particular effect from any one film (Studio production notes).

In the same way, the set is designed to evoke a feel of ‘fantasy Oxbridge’, and the costumes to ‘capture the feel of the period without copying it’ (Studio production notes), and so the mise-en-scene combines the privileged tone of Oxbridge culture in the 30s with the glamour of Hollywood musicals. The film draws its originality from the way expected scenes emerge. Branagh has this to say about the ‘top hat and tails’ number that the cast performs after Berowne sings ‘Cheek to Cheek’, which was originally performed as a top hat and tails number by Fred Astaire in Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) [16]:

The top hat and tails in a movie that’s set in the thirties is a delicious and expected kind of image, but we wanted to surprise people with the way in which it emerged. É It’s a bit campy and a bit silly, but it’s sort of saying I bet you were expecting a top hat and tails number, weren’t you? Well, we’re giving it to you now!’ (Studio production notes)

Similarly, Nathan Lane’s rendition of the famous ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ as a slow balladic number at first thwarts our expectations, but proceeds to fulfil them minutes later when the scene bursts into a riot of colour and showmanship that closes the pageant. This sort of elbow-nudging from the film invites the spectator to participate in its antics, to complete and close the circuit of meaning in the marriage of Shakespeare with the musical form.

The spectator is called upon to recall, and perhaps recover, an earlier memory of watching Fred and Ginger, Esther Williams and Gene Kelly dance, swim and sing their way to stardom. What is drawn to the surface is a memory of the sense of having seen these films, without really needing to recall any of the films in specific detail; and a large part of that memory is aural. When the tunes appear in Love’s Labour’s Lost, we feel as if we have heard them somewhere before, even if we cannot identify the original source. This is in part due to the fact that these songs, as ‘classics’, are continually fed back into the cultural stream and reappear in other films and performances. Astaire’s performance of ‘Cheek to Cheek’ for instance made a memorable appearance in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Also, this effect is enhanced in the age of television, where films, and clips of films, are re-played continually to each succeeding generation, forming a part of the cultural capital that we continually draw on.

In addition, Branagh’s film capitalises on the fact that the songs were themselves composed specifically to be remembered apart from the films they appeared in. Richard Crawford notes that ‘Broadway songs were composed to contribute to a show and to appeal outside it, even to listeners and performers who knew nothing of their original context’ (669); in fact, Crawford notes that composers like Jerome Kern ‘wrote the songs so that they could circulate independently, in sheet-music form’ (669). As such, ‘the central legacy of musical theatre of all types [in the 1920s and 1930s] remain the songs’:

Every successful show and the majority of those otherwise forgotten, offered one or more songs that continued with a life of its own. The Broadway and film songs of Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Porter and Rodgers, among others are still with us, frequently sung and increasingly revered. Even when heard in instrumental versions in shopping malls, elevators and lounges, they still retain a close association with their original verbal messages. (Block 86)

This is part of what Stephen Banfield identifies as the songs’ ‘apotheosis’, that ‘one era’s generic sufficiencyÉcan become the next generation’s background material for a new layer of allure’ (317).

The ‘new layer of allure’ in Branagh’s film is the layering of the songs and the dance numbers with Shakespeare’s text. Although critics consider the cast’s less-than-professional execution of the choreography the main weakness of the film,[17] Branagh has openly acknowledged that he had aimed for a film that was ‘actor-led as opposed to dancer-led’ because ‘he wanted to invest the singing and dancing with the kind of particular understanding of character which an actor can bring’ (Studio production notes). He asserts that he was ‘happy to accept a certain rawness in the singing and dancing provided it came from a very clear sense of who the people were’ (Studio production notes). In this sense, the film claims its lineage from a very long history of Shakespeare performance where it is the actor who defines the role and character that he plays. And yet, through the numerous allusions to musicals over time – Branagh calls them all his ‘favourite bites from musicals of the past, across 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and even 60’s with Bob Fosse in there as well’ (Studio production notes) – the film also claims its lineage from a shorter but no less distinguished history of the stage/film musical.

Thus, through the merging of two formal and, in their own ways, great traditions, the symbiosis of text and performance, of music and image, raises the film above the narrative level where Shakespeare’s love story might be simply interspersed with familiar songs. Branagh’s deft manipulation of spectator recollection allows the film to take ownership of the songs and make them part of Shakespeare’s play inasmuch as the play is made part of the American musical, the sum of which two add up to Branagh’s own film as a performance of its own time.

A film that draws attention to its status as a re-enactment is always performative, in that it presents its own act of re-making something else, rather than transparently representing the fiction. The term performativity derives from J. L. Austin’s definition of the performative speech act as one that performs what it names (such as ‘I do take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife’), in contrast to the constative speech act that describes; as such, the act of speaking points to itself, not to a referent (6-7).[18] While we take for granted that the performative is an attribute (an adjective) of all performance, which creates what it presents, adaptations depend on a heightened performativity to the extent that the performance does not merely dramatise or interpret a script, but absorbs those functions into the interests, motives, and activity of re-performing it.

The performativity of an adaptation engages us not at the level of what it means, but what it does. All film adaptation of Shakespeare in this sense performs itself – a relation to Shakespeare and is necessarily self-reflexive about the cinematic medium and its culture(s), which stage Shakespeare in our own image. Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, however, can be said to engage a dual performativity of re-enactment. The doubling of Elizabethan play and Hollywood musical foregrounds the pleasures of re-playing and re-staging each, through the rhythm of transitions and switches between them, and the consequent framing of one with the other. In this section we conclude by looking at how the spectator is made to watch and participate in the simultaneous performance of this double re-enactment.

A recognition of how Branagh’s deployment of musical form enhances the formal patterning in Love’s Labour’s Lost and allows one to distinguish a performative dimension in both the musical and Shakespeare’s handling of action in this play, which is a-fictional in its attraction. The fluid transition of Berowne’s eulogy to love into the performance of ‘Cheek to Cheek’ demonstrates how the songs share the quality of ‘set speeches’ in Shakespeare which can be extracted and anthologized. Both are great evocative moments that crystallize an experience, a feeling, or attitude in the performance of it; they arise out of the narrative and at the same time stand away from it, in that they attract and encapsulate many more situations than this one, and are thus abstract in their lyric vitality. The personification of Love in the speech supports this removal of feeling from its fictional context, and almost invites the production of another, imaginary scene that then appears to fulfil it visually as the rapturous dance performance of the song. Threading speech into song doubles and extends the climax of this scene, prolonging the spectator’s absorption in the performance of romance.

Thus the poetry, song and dance only nominally refer to the lovers, for they aspire as nearly as possible to the pure performative act. Austin’s performative speech act is usually tied to a situation to which it refers: ‘I do’ (take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife), as uttered in the course of a marriage ceremony’ (13-14)[19] and Shakespeare and musical performances represent a fiction. The attraction of this compound moment, however, consists not in leaving the plot behind altogether but in mobilising it towards a distillation of its occasionÑthis occasion is in part the characters falling in love, but in greater part the desire to experience romance through its ideal, poetic performance. We can see the performative re-enacting itself and exercising a compelling effect on its audience even at one remove when Branagh explains how he performed this speech: ‘And in the very doing of it, of the description of the way love transforms you, you actually see him be transformed by the words themselves, you actually see the actor succumb to the power of the poetry to the point where, in fact, words are not enough, and he’s got to sing’ (Director’s commentary).

The performativity of the film is that of reprise, where the mixed genres enable familiar songs and dance routines to stand out as a new act of showcasing old favourites, and appeal to the old-fashioned glamour of movie stars to theatricalise Shakespeare’s characters. The enjoyment of the enterprise of staging Shakespeare through the musical and vice versa is what constitutes its energy: because the songs and the many visual allusions to movies are pieced together from different sources in a Shakespeare play from which, correspondingly, most of the lines have been removed to leave the bare essentials of the plot, neither form asserts full presence. Instead, it is the moment-by-moment re-capture and re-staging of both Shakespeare and the Hollywood musical through their relationship to one another that is engaged. The performativity of re-enactment is visible in the way details stand out for their own sake. Branagh stresses the degree of care exercised by the design team in evoking the tone of Hollywood’s Golden Era musicals: from the costumes to the colour and even the red satin backdrop that the opening titles are ‘written’ onto; every detail performs what he calls the opposite of realism – or ‘a sort of unrealism” (Studio production notes).

We are prompted to recognise and participate in the re-creation of both play and musical by the transitions between them that sustain the actor’s presence in the act of embodying character, and of turning character into dancer. The audience shifts between watching Branagh perform Berowne perform tap dance, where an interchangeability between Shakespearean character and musical performer promotes throughout an awareness of his act of re-staging both. If anything, because the song-and-dance routines are enjoyable as showmanship, they heighten the possibility of stepping out of the narrative into the present performance occasion, that of imaginative invention. Similarly, the costumes function at once as period style and as dance costume.

The production of the artifice is what we are repeatedly enjoined to admire and share; for instance, the introduction of the Princess and her ladies in four perfectly aligned punts floating slowly down the river at twilight, each glowing in a different coloured dress and lit by two large oval lanterns reflected on the water. The cinematography and editing of the scenes not only contribute greatly to their effect of glamour, beauty, and formal harmony, but position the spectator in the point of view that constructs it. Here the frontal shot of the girls proffers an idealised image of romantic idyll composed by a privileged but unrealistic spectator position directly facing them in the river; in the swimming number ‘Fancy Free’ and ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ the overhead shots[20] place the spectator in an even more impossible position, where we are made conscious that the figure formations are special arrangements for our benefit and delight. The spectator’s view of the mise-en-scene is regularly composed in formal symmetry, and our point of view participates in the dance sequences through rapid mobile framing at acute angles and rhythmic editing. In this particular scene the frontal shot of the girls is followed by a racking foreshot from the bank where Boyet is riding his bicycle alongside them, emphasizing the delicate composition of the image in motion. Branagh states that he wanted everything ‘to look effortless and yet somehow neat’ (Director’s commentary).

Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost performs an unabashed re-creation of what it acknowledges and indeed celebrates as fantasy. But the film also takes care throughout to align itself with the view that Shakespeare incorporated a judgement on its insubstantial world of wit, erudition and courtship as the play’s self-critique: firstly through the women’s mockery of the men, and, more harshly, by averting the expected happy ending with the news of the King of France’s death. This abrupt shift in direction and tone at the end is always something of a shock, which forces an audience to re-assess their experience of the romantic comedy through the sensation of the playwright’s hand intruding as a viewpoint on it. The film’s strategy for incorporating a viewpoint that distances and ironises the fantasy it celebrates takes the form of black-and-white newsreel montages and newspapers. These introduce the imminence of World War Two as the context of reality against which the momentary idyll in Navarre is set. Whilst the newsreels serve an expository function of filling in (or fast-forwarding) the story, they also set the tone of good-humoured mockery with which its progress is regarded, and repeatedly require us to step out of the fantasy and re-focus it from the distance of ‘the real world’.

The film thus prepares the viewer much more than Shakespeare did to recognise the status of the romantic comedy as incomplete, if not illusory, and to accept its puncture at the end. And yet it adds another ending, or epilogue, that reverses the judgement of history on the musicals of that period, as well as Shakespeare’s on his romantic comedy, by restoring a comic resolution after the war in the reunion of not only the four pairs of lovers but the whole community of characters, with the sole exception of Boyet who has been killed in action.

A lost play called Love’s Labour’s Won is known to have existed, which some think may have been Shakespeare’s sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost (and a response to the audience’s dissatisfaction at being cheated of the comic resolution). To understand what this film’s ending does with that wish fulfilment, one needs to re-consider the device of framing the musical with the newsreel. As a framework for the reality that will disrupt the musical fantasy, the black-and-white newsreel montage narrated by a voiceover is as much a reprise of a certain cinematic style as the glamour it forms a contrast to, and belongs to a long convention for signifying but also manipulating the value of an external, public viewpoint. Here it fulfils the structural function of an opposition to the absorption of Shakespeare’s Navarre and the musical in their own performances, as a rupture that needs to happen. But its performance of the narrative of World War Two (the fall and recovery of Europe) re-enacts a larger collective and historical sense of loss into which Love’s Labour’s Lost is gathered, and upon which is predicated the necessity of a happy ending that will not only reward the men for their faithfulness, but performers and audience for their belief in re-enacting it. Thomas Greene writes that

Love’s Labour’s Lost is distinguished by a certain slenderness of feeling, a delicate insubstantiality. One source of that impression may be the play’s lack, unique in Shakespeare, of any firm social underpinning. Not only is there missing any incarnation of responsible authority É but there is equally missing any representative of a stable and dependable citizenry. There is nobody here who, however quirky or foolish or provincial, can be counted on, when he is multiplied enough times, to keep society functioning. (225)

This view is worth quoting at length because it clarifies the difference between the play and what its re-enactment performs in this film. In place of a society in Navarre, the film supplies two contexts for reality, that of the war, and that of our memory of it now, both of which raise the stakes on the capacity for performing idealism, romance, glamour and fun (in a word, lightness) as an affirmation of life. In the same measure that it represents the real world, the newsreel’s ultimate function is to vindicate the endurance of the romance (and the endurance of our desire to re-perform it) by absorbing the characters into ‘reality’ and showing that their loves survive the outer world, and time.

The last newsreel that follows the ending of the play inserts snapshot moments of all the characters in their war-time roles into typical footage of the war, and brings them back together in a moving series of eye-line matches as they look for and spot each other amidst an enormously crowded victory celebration. Because we, too, search for their faces in the crowd, we are spliced into the moment of recovering them and their reunion, like that of old friends. Our participation is in fact what produces their community, which is lacking in the play, but created here as a collective inheritance of Shakespeare, Hollywood musicals and history, and it is this community that is enacted by the merging of the camera’s viewpoint with the photograph that Dull takes of them. In a slow-motion image that gradually turns into full colour as it freezes, they are all about to be captured in a group photograph. The stretching out of these final moments takes Shakespeare and the Hollywood musical out of their historical placements, to form an imprint in our remembering of the central crisis of the twentieth century. Branagh’s last lines are spoken in voiceover by the actor (and director), not the character. The repetition of the lines upon which he had broken into the song ‘Cheek to Cheek’ invoke the musical we have watched as a trace, and the lines he had then left out perform the resonance of that lightness in the present.

And when Love speaks, the voice of all the gods
Make heaven drowsy with the harmony.
…..
From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:
…..
They are the books, the arts, the academes,
That show, contain and nourish all the world.

4.3.318-327

 

In place of the ambivalence of the play’s original ending, Branagh closes the film with lines taken from the moment in the play where the men are celebrating the height of their innocence. The disruption of that moment in the narrative is mitigated by the instrumental rendition of ‘You Can’t Take That Away From Me’. Where the rupture in the narrative is signified by the shift in film style to the newsreel, the music in fact continues seamlessly from the farewell scene,[21] through the entire black-and-white montage, overlaying the grittiness of the newsreel with a sentimentality and nostalgia that confirms for the viewer the presence of his own time.

Before the final scene freezes into an actual photograph, the film cuts directly to the closing credits that re-play the duets from ‘Cheek to Cheek’ in reverse whilst the music fades into a rousing instrumental reprise of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. Consequently, although the fantasy is framed and punctured by the proffered reality of the ‘real world’ and the war, in essence, the audience never fully leaves the resplendent world of the movie musical; or as Nathan Lane sings, ‘you’re brokenhearted, but you go on’. Thus, Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost adds itself on to Shakespeare’s list of ‘books, arts and academes’, inter-performatively, as an enduring source of emotional and spiritual nourishment for the new audience.

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington : Indiana UP, 1987.

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1962.

Aylesworth, Thomas G. History of Movie Musicals. London: Hamlyn, 1984.

Block, Geoffrey. ‘The melody (and the words) linger on: American musical comedies of the 1920s and 1930s’. The Cambridge Companion to the Musical. Eds. William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 77-97.

Brawley, Vance and Nathaniel Thompson. ‘A True Love’s Labour: Patrick Doyle’. Interview [online]. http://www.scorelogue.com/doyletalk.html.
7 September 2003.

Crawford, Richard. A History of America’s Musical Life. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Crowl, Samuel. Shakespeare at the Cineplex: The Kenneth Branagh Era. Athens: Ohio UP, 2003.

Director’s commentary. Love’s Labour’s Lost. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. 2000. Digital video disc [DVD]. Miramax, 2001.

Ebert, Roger. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’. Review. Chicago Sun-Times [online], n.d. http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/2000/06/061903.html. 5 January 2004.

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. Bloomington : Indiana UP, 1993.

Greene, Thomas M. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Grace of Society’. Love’s Labour’s Lost: Critical Essays. Ed. Felicia Hardison Londre. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. 225Ð242.

LaSalle, Mick. ‘Branagh’s Labored Musical: Bad singing, dancing sink 30s-style Love’s Labor’s Lost.” San Francisco Chronicle [online], 16 June 2000. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2000/06/16/DD16419.DTL. 6 January 2004.

Londre, Felicia Hardison. Love’s Labour’s Lost: Critical Essays. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Maslin, Janet. ‘Soft! What Light? It’s Flash, Romeo’. Review. New York Times, 1 November 1996: n.p.

Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Studio production notes [of Love’s Labour’s Lost]. Reprinted in The Daily Telegiraffe [online]. http://members.tripod.com/ DailyTelegiraffe/ loveslaboursloststudionotes.html. 7 September 2003.

‘Trust Kenneth Branagh’. Interview. The Belfast Telegraph, 22 March 2000. Reprinted in The Daily Telegiraffe [online]. http://members.tripod.com/ ~DailyTelegiraffe/loveslabourslostbelfast.html. 7 September 2003.

Wilson, John Dover. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost: The Story of a Conversion’. Love’s Labour’s Lost: Critical Essays. Ed. Felicia Hardison Londre. New York and London: Routledge, 1997. 175-191.

Woudhuysen, H. R. ‘Introduction’. Love’s Labour’s Lost. By William Shakespeare. Ed. H. R. Woudhuysen. Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series. Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1998.

Wray, Ramona and Mark Thornton Burnett. ‘From the Horse’s Mouth: Branagh on the Bard’. Shakespeare, Film, Fin De Siecle. Eds. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray. London: Macmillan & New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.165-178.

Endnotes:

[1] A number of essays in recent book collections deal with both the formal and cultural dimensions of the visuality of Shakespeare on film. See Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells, eds., Shakespeare and the Moving Image (Cambridge University Press, 1994); Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt, eds., Shakespeare the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video (Routledge, 1997); Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, eds., Shakespeare, Film, Fin De Siecle (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

[2] Janet Maslin of the New York Times called it ‘an attempt to reinvent Romeo and Juliet’ in the hyperkinetic vocabulary of post-modern kitsch’ and ‘headache Shakespeare’.

[3] Branagh released two versions of his Hamlet: a condensed 2½-hour version for popular consumption, and the 4-hour version using a ‘complete’ text which is generally accepted to be collated from several variants, and not ‘originally’ performed in entirety as a single play. In doing so he confronted the accepted practice of film adaptations of sacrificing some text to visual and narrative continuity. Branagh says, ‘there was the sense of futility, if you like, of a four-hour film (that was obviously language-based) possibly finding an audience at the end of the twentieth century … [but also] the love of the endeavour, the sort of, and not wishing to be immodest, mad heroism of the endeavour … I thought that was a sort of Hamletian thing to do.’ (Wray and Burnett, 171)

[4] For example, Laurence Olivier’s screen Shakespeare (e.g. Hamlet, 1948, and Richard III, 1955). For an account of the development of Shakespeare in the cinema, see Kenneth Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[5] Luhrmann’s MTV-style Romeo + Juliet, or the Hollywood-style action adventure scenes in Branagh’s Hamlet, are two cases in point, as is Gil Junger’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew into 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), set in an American high school.

[6] Examples are Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996).

[7] All quotations from Love’s Labour’s Lost are taken from the Arden edition, ed. H. R. Woudhuysen (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1998).

[8] See, for instance, Rick Altman’s The American Film Musical, or Jane Feuer’s The Hollywood Musical.

[9] Cf. Gil Junger’s re-contextualizing of The Taming of the Shrew into a teenage movie, or Richard Loncraine’s re-contextualizing of Richard III (1995) into an imaginary 1930s fascist Britain.

[10] Branagh’s choreographing of the play echoes John Dover Wilson, who counters H. B. Charlton’s criticism that the eight lovers ‘resemble each other in a wooden conformity’ and ‘have all to do the same sort of thing’ by pointing out that ‘they constitute of course the most striking feature of the design and they do so the more effectively in that they provide the main element of the colour scheme… the scenes are so arranged that the colour-scheme is constantly changing: the King and his lords are outblazoned by Armado and Moth, who after being contrasted with the simplicity of Dull, Costard, and Jaquenetta, are in their turn followed by the dapper Boyet and his bevy of dainty ladies. Next, the two main groups are brought together for the splendour of Navarre to confront the grace of France (188-189).

[11] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times has this to say: ‘All is light and winning, and yet somehow empty. It’s no excuse that the starting point was probably the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” is hardly ever performed on the stage and has never been previous filmed, and there is a reason for that: It’s not about anything. In its original form, instead of the songs and dances we have dialogue that’s like an idle exercise in easy banter for Shakespeare.’

[12] See, for instance, Peter B. Erickson, ‘The Failure of Relationship between Men and Women in Love’s Labor’s Lost‘, Love’s Labour’s Lost: Critical Essays, 243-256. The accepted dating of the play as one of Shakespeare’s earliest (1589-90, or even earlier) has directed both criticisms and defences of what Harley Granville-Barker generously saw as ‘Shakespeare’s dramatic innocence’ (qtd in Copeau, 119), which contains the seeds of his more mature comedies. See Jacques Copeau, ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost: One of Shakespeare’s First Bows’ and Alfred Harbage, ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost and the Early Shake
speare’, both in Love’s Labour’s Lost: Critical Essays, 117-123; 193-211.

[13] Since Hazlitt’s statement in 1817, ‘If we were to part with any of the author’s comedies, it should be this’ (repr. in Love’s Labour’s Lost: Critical Essays, 61), the play has often been regarded as an inferior or flawed work in Shakespeare’s canon. Thomas Greene states that ‘The qualities of Love’s Labour’s Lost determine its limitations. The arabesques of wit, the elaborations of courtly artifice, the coolness of tone – these sources of its charm contribute to that brittleness and thinness and faded superficiality for which some critics of several generations have reproached it’ (225).

[14] See for instance the discussion of the endings of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Branagh’s Hamlet, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) in Yong Li Lan, ‘Returning to Naples: Seeing the End in Shakespeare Film Adaptation’, Literature/Film Quarterly 29:2 (2001), 128-134.

[15] Daniel Schacter defines implicit memory as ‘the idea that memory can be manifested without [the] awareness of remembering’ (162) and cites the success of commercial advertising as an instance of how this works, ‘that people tend to prefer products featured in ads they barely glanced at several minutes earlierÑeven when they have no explicit memory for having seen the ad’ (190).

[16] Ironically, Aylesworth has this to say about Top Hat: ‘With its plot of mistaken identity and accidental confusion, RKO [the studio] might have resurrected William Shakespeare to write the story line’ (46).

[17] Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle is particularly caustic, calling it ‘a stink bomb of a movie’, citing two ‘obvious’ problems: ‘This is a Shakespeare play featuring actors who can’t talk. And it’s a musical featuring people who can’t sing.’

[18] Citing the examples ‘I do (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)’ as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony’ and ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth‘ as uttered when smashing the bottle against the stem’, Austin says, ‘In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it’ (6-7) .

[19] Austin gives six rules which spell out the conditions for ‘the smooth or happy functioning of the performative’, any of which being contravened will cause the performative utterance to be ‘unhappy’ or ‘infelicitous’ (14-15).

[20] The overhead shot is characteristic of the lavish Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s; see Crawford.

[21] It is a scene which quotes the well-known Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942).

 

Author Biography

Felicia Chan is currently a doctoral candidate in the Postgraduate School of Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham and is researching the cultural translatability of transnational Chinese cinema. She has published several papers on the subject and is currently teaching a course in Film Cultures at Nottingham. She can be contacted on Felicia.Chan@manchester.ac.uk.
Yong Li Lau can be contacted on ellyll@nus.edu.sg