#16. As You Like It (2006)
Some enthusiastic newbies to Shakespeare crave an authentically Shakespearean experience, something satisfyingly old-looking, true to history, and they will primly turn their nose up at productions that have the gall to change the setting of a play.
This is a truly silly position. Oh, there isn’t anything terribly wrong with having a traditional setting for Shakespeare’s plays, as Olivier’s Richard III proves. But there is an obligation for every new production of Shakespeare to actually be new, not just enact the plays like a theatrical jukebox for eternity.
Also, the idea of the purity of a setting is problematic if we consider that the plays, including the history plays, are historically imaginative or else inaccurate (such as the tolling of the clock in Julius Caesar). There is a theatrical approach to Shakespeare called period practice, which strives to painstakingly recreate a theatrical experience that Shakespeare’s own audience would have witnessed. Such shows forgo modern effects, pyrotechnics, staging, and lighting, yet they don’t take this approach all the way and have the female characters portrayed by men. Such productions imagine the bard in heaven blessing them for not using all of the tools of modern theater to entice an audience to buy a ticket for the show.
What is an appropriate historical setting for Macbeth? The eleventh century, based on Shakespeare’s source material, or the early seventeenth century, when the play was written and performed? Or in an alternate universe where the eleventh and seventeenth centuries overlap? Or Ontario, circa the winter of 1967, perhaps?
Getting too excited that a production looks sufficiently dusty is in absurdly wretched taste.
In his essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884), Henry James wrote, “We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donee: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it.”
In the case of a play like As You Like It, the setting isn’t especially all that clear in the first place. A dukedom in France. The forest of Arden. It’s basically another comedy, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that is about flight into a pastoral landscape, in this case caused by Frederick claiming his older brother’s title as duke and then exiling his brother. The court’s loyalties are split in two, with the Duke Senior’s entourage following him in the wild.
Kenneth Branagh set his film in late 19th century Japan, in an unnamed treaty port, thus making the presence of Englishmen, well, plausible. Treaty ports were places where the countries that signed such treaties enjoyed extraterritoriality, meaning they were not subject to the laws of that land. Traders brought families and followers with them and created “mini-empires,” according to a caption at the start of the film. This choice of setting allows for a more believable sense of the drama, that jealousy in families could lead to tragic trajectories.
You know the difference between comedy and tragedy, in Shakespearean terms? Comedies end in marriage, tragedies end in a pile of corpses. Hamlet could be a comedy until he ups and stabs Polonius. And the comedies could turn more dark, if a confrontation were to turn fatal, like it did with poor Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
A caption in Branagh’s film tells us that the traders and their entourages in Japan “tried to embrace this extraordinary culture, its beauties and its dangers.” Now I can’t help but wonder at the colonialist privilege entailed in this setting, which Branagh tries his best to alleviate by representing very few Japanese people, and by lavishing cinematography upon impressive examples of Japanese architecture, costumes, and painting. Yet traders are not necessarily interchangeable with colonial powers, and unlike colonialists, these traders do try embrace Japanese culture, in a mixture of East and West that looks rather opulent and Romantic, yet not altogether fake, either. Branagh isn’t vouching for the political worldview of his characters, just as Francis Ford Coppola was not serving as an apologist for the mafia, I suppose. The politics of this film, the degree of cultural appropriation involved, remain an open question for me.
Patrick Doyle’s arrangement for the song “Under the Greenwood Tree” includes a koto, which sounds awfully strange, or strangely awful, plucked with the melody.
There is something fascinating about Branagh’s casting, though: Branagh does not star in this film, apart from a clever cameo at the film’s close.
There is something else fascinating about his casting: it’s not his pathological pandering-to-Hollywood approach.
Oh, Alfred Molina plays the clown Touchstone, and Kevin Kline plays the gloomy Jaques (the original Eeyore). But Kevin Kline has training in Shakespeare, and proved himself in a film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Alfred Molina acquits himself deliciously as a fool, adding a dash of zaniness like Michael Keaton in Much Ado About Nothing. And despite being known as a Hollywood actor, Alfred Molina is, I’ll be damned, actually British.
Most of the cast is British. Brian Blessed plays the two brothers, both the gentle soul and the angry usurper.
Bryce Dallas Howard, not terribly famous, sounds reliably British as the play’s main character Rosaline, despite Howard being American. Romula Garai is by turns touching and delightful as Rosaline’s cousin. And Richard Briars brings compelling dignity and nobility to the role of Adam, an old servant who is in search of a world in which loyalty and kindness are rewarded.
As the jumbled nature of the previous two paragraphs reveals, the cast of this film coheres and makes my binary dissection of their performances by country of origin (as is easy in other Branagh films) difficult. These actors are all in the same movie. Branagh has stopped slapping unprepared actors into the bard’s work. And he likely took a more careful hand as a director of his actors by not acting in the film himself. Perhaps someone spoke with him after Love’s Labour’s Lost. Perhaps he had trouble getting funding after that. Perhaps Shakespeare’s ghost visited him in a dream and asked him, “What the fuck?”
As You Like It is a tremendous film, actually, moving and sad and a romp, with actors delivering the music of Shakespeare’s language so naturally, and acting so well together, that it does what great art does: it wakes us up. It makes us more alive. It fills us up with the intelligible world.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.