Thanks very much to everyone for the suggestions about which Shakespeare productions to watch, which should keep me going for ages! This will just be a short posting to say that I’ve watched the Kenneth Branagh production of As You Like It on DVD, and enjoyed it very much. I have also recently seen a much earlier version, the 1936 production with Laurence Olivier as Orlando, which I wrote about over on my old movies blog - Olivier is great as always, but the film seems rather stilted and also cuts out great chunks of the play. This modern version keeps much more of Shakespeare’s text – watching it, I realised that several important characters had been completely cut out of the 30s movie.
The most immediately striking thing about Branagh’s version is the setting, moving the Forest of Arden to 19th-century Japan – where the characters are re-invented as members of a self-governing enclave of British merchants. However, it was actually filmed in the UK with oriental touches like samurai warriors added in. This makes for beautiful costumes, but I’m not sure the Japanese element adds much apart from that – especially as so much of it takes place in the forest, which somehow looks very English. It does mean that the wrestlers become Sumo wrestlers, which is an intriguing idea.
The cast is wonderful – especially Bryce Dallas Howard as a lively, sensitive Rosalind, though it is difficult to find her disguise as a man convincing for a moment! Romola Garai, one of my favourite costume drama actresses, is excellent as Celia and the two heroines work well together. David Oyelowo is also good as romantic hero Orlando, with Adrian Lester as his older brother Oliver. I also really liked Kevin Kline as Jaques, the melancholy man, with the “Seven Ages of Man” speech – now hoping to see the DVD of Kline’s stage performance as Hamlet. Another stand-out performance comes from Richard Briers as the old servant Adam.
Brian Blessed is an actor I sometimes find rather overwhelming in contemporary roles, but he comes into his own speaking Shakespeare’s verse and I enjoyed his double role here as the usurping Duke and his exiled brother. Alfred Molina also has a lot of fun as the fool Touchstone, who gets many of Shakespeare’s best comic lines. Branagh himself sadly doesn’t appear (except for his voice saying “Cut!” at the end of Rosalind’s epilogue) but the whole production carries his unmistakable stamp. It all feels very lighthearted and warm and looks visually gorgeous – with Jaques adding the right touch of melancholy amid the general happiness. After seeing these two films of As You Like It, I’d really like to see a stage production – and will be looking out for one over the coming year.