Published Feb 01, 2000When director Julie Taymor's Titus was released a few months ago, almost every review expressed surprise that a film had been made of Titus Andronicus, a play that they invariably labeled "Shakespeare's least popular play," or even "Shakespeare's worst play." Both of these disparaging claims, however, are difficult to support, for a glance at its stage history shows that Titus was an influential and very popular play both in its day and in the centuries that followed, and a consideration of the text itself reveals a rich, vital, and experimental work that is far from Shakespeare's "worst."
A much stronger contender for the title of Shakespeare's least popular and worst play is Love's Labour's Lost, an early comedy with weak dramatic sensibilities, flat and banal characters, a repetitive and predictable plot, and an anticlimactic ending. After Shakespeare's death, it appears that the play was not acted for more than 200 years - in fact, in the 18th century, it was the only one of Shakespeare's plays that was never staged. The principal merit of the play is its elaborately poetic and highly structured language, and although this makes reading a well-footnoted edition of the play fascinating, the complexity of the poetry makes the play almost incomprehensible in performance.
Kenneth Branagh's response to this situation in his newly released film of the play is to cut the text dramatically, leaving barely 25% of Shakespeare's original text in his movie. To fill this gap, Branagh comes up with a slightly crazy idea: he replaces the dense and elaborate poetry of the play with musical numbers drawn from Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Irving Berlin. Although the concept here is very clever our response to musical numbers from the Golden Age of Hollywood may very well mirror the Elizabethan audience's response to overblown sonnet-teering - Branagh's execution leaves a lot to be desired. In his attempt to superimpose Shakespearean comedy upon the Hollywood musical (or vice versa), Branagh makes a film that fails on both accounts. Love's Labour's Lost, not the strongest play to begin with, is gutted of all of its merits to make room for the musical numbers, and the musical numbers are awkwardly lumped together, apparently chosen at random and often having no bearing whatsoever on the story they ought to support.
Branagh's judgment has never been particularly consistent - let us remember his unfathomable casting of Keanu Reeves as the villain in Much Ado, or his decision to portray Hamlet as a man who can't stop yelling - but here his choices raise more than the usual number of questions. Why, for example, when making a movie that is carried almost solely by its song and dance numbers, would he not cast people capable of singing and dancing? Why not raid Broadway or London's West End, instead of relying upon the "talents" of Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) and Matthew Lillard (Scream)? Why would he not select his music more carefully, perhaps choosing songs that fit with his story more than tangentially, or at least songs that we haven't heard thousands of times before in shopping malls and elevators?
The most interesting aspect of the film is not its adaptation of Shakespeare's play, but its relationship with the Hollywood musicals that it invokes. The musical numbers exhibit all of the silliness and the excess of the genre - in case you're wondering, yes, there is a synchro-swimming routine for no apparent reason at the centre of the film. At some points, it is clear that Branagh is paying homage to the genre, and at other points, it is clear that he is parodying it. Too much of the film, however, seems to exist in the uncomfortable netherworld in between. I spent much of the movie laughing, but all too often I couldn't tell if I was laughing with it or at it.
Although Branagh's direction here is at best perplexing and at worst misguided, there are nevertheless a number of performances that help to salvage this train wreck. Alessandro Nivola (Face/Off) delivers a solid performance as the King of Navarre. The show, however, is stolen on a number of occasions by Nathan Lane, whose Groucho Marx-inspired take on Costard offers an inspired variation on the Shakespearean clown, drawing attention to the nuances of language that are all too often lost in buffoonery.
Branagh himself, although his singing and dancing leave something to be desired, does a fine job as Berowne, one of the King's attendants. Most studies of the play see Berowne as a first stab at a character type that Shakespeare perfected in Much Ado's Benedick, and Branagh's performance highlights this fact for us: however fine his Berowne is, it is a pale reflection of his Benedick. Why would Branagh want to take on a role that, at best, offers an inferior echo of one of his finest performances? Why would he want to film so weak a play? Why would he gut it of the only merits it possesses by filling it with irrelevant song and dance numbers? Why would he cast such inferior singers and dancers in a big-budget musical? Is the whole thing an elaborate joke? I have no idea.