Bard with frills and leather trousers

21st January 2000 at 00:00
He may be one of the greats of the last millennium but Shakespeare's blank verse gets blank looks unless his plays are given the Hollywood treatment.

David Mosford reports.

THE presentation of America's Gielgud Award to Kenneth

Branagh this week in London has highlighted the age-old dilemma over how Shakespeare can be made accessible to a younger


That someone like Branagh - whose films have met with mixed reviews - can be feted for giving the Bard showbiz appeal underlines how unpopular ungarnished Shakespeare is assumed to be.

It was Branagh who brought Keanu Reeves into his Tuscan version of Much Ado About Nothing because, as he commented: "I thought people would pay to see Keanu in tight leather trousers. I know I would."

He also found roles for Billy Crystal, Sir John Mills, Sir John Gielgud and Ken Dodd in his Blenheim Palace version of Hamlet, resulting in a cast list positively top-heavy with celebrities.

Branagh's latest project, a 1930s version of Love's Labour's Lost, goes further in its attempts to popularise Shakespeare by cutting much of the dialogue and replacing it with Cole Porter songs.

Whether the Branagh approach is helpful for youngsters who are obliged to study Shakespeare for GCSE is a moot point. Tight trousers may lead teenagers to Shakespeare - - but will they make them read him?

John F Andrews who founded the United States-based Shakespeare Guild believes Branagh is doing the right thing: "I have no doubt that through his remark able films Kenneth Branagh has introduced the works of William Shakespeare to a new generation of audiences."

Mark Lawson, who presents Radio 4's Front Row, is less sure, comparing the approach of directors like Branagh and Baz Romeo+Juliet Luhrman to that of DJs, like Fat Boy Slim, who "sample" rather thn play pop CDs.

Hollywood has in its time cast both Douglas Fairbanks as Petruchio and Jimmy Cagney as Bottom. It also brought in Marlon Brando to glamorise a 1953 Julius Caesar, and introduced the notorious Brando pauses into some of Shakespeare's best-loved speeches (he developed the technique to gain time to read off the idiot boards).

And Roman Polanski's 1972 Macbeth, co-financed by Playboy's Hugh Hefner, may have been enjoyed by the bloodthirsty, but, some claim, is only worth watching for Francesca Annis's nude sleep-walking Lady Macbeth.

The sheer ambition and scale of Shakespeare's work has always been a problem for his audiences. In 1662 Samuel Pepys attended a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which had been given a 17th-century make-over, under the title The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver.

"Twas the most insipid play that I ever saw in my life," Pepys noted in his diary, although he did admire some handsome women among the dancers.

For teachers today the problem can lie in retaining a child's interest once he or she returns from the cinema. "My class loved seeing Leonardo diCaprio in Romeo+Juliet," commented one head of English. "But as soon as we opened the set text they quailed at the sight of all that blank verse."

Kiri Crequer, aged 14, of Ricards Lodge school, Wimbledon, said the modern version of the play had brought Shakespeare to life for her.

"I thought the opening was pure class, with the modern soundtrack and the introduction of the two gangs. This immediately caught the attention of younger viewers.

"Some of the aspects of the play had changed. For example, guns replaced swords. Some people saw this as a fault, but it was completely justified when the text began and people were listening to the famous language of Shakespeare."

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