Labour of Love: Lisa Jardine Gets in the Mood for Valentine's Day with the Bard. (Sonnets)

Article excerpt

The works of Shakespeare used to be seen as a source for deep moral insights about ourselves. Whatever values and beliefs were quintessentially "English" were (so we were taught) to be found enshrined in his golden verse. Today, apparently, Shakespeare's has become the pop-cultural voice of smouldering teenage passion -- Baz Luhrmann's cult youth film Romeo & Juliet, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the epitome of first love, followed by Miramax's box-office hit Shakespeare in Love, with Joseph Fiennes as Will, a matinee idol, in pursuit of a winsomely androgynous Gwyneth Paltrow.

On the crest of the wave of such sentimentality comes a new CD of Shakespeare sonnets, sung and spoken by a star-studded cast of theatre luvvies and assorted pop stars. The album was released for Valentine's Day and billed as a fundraiser for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada). Its title, When Love Speaks, is appropriately lifted from a play full of self-indulgent love talk, Love's Labour's Lost:

"And when Love speaks the voice of all the gods

Makes heaven drowsy with the harmony..."

So is this just another collection of saccharine sentiments for a dumbed-down audience? Actually, no. This is a CD that deserves to become a bestseller, and yet which, remarkably, neither patronises the listener nor fudges the serious significance of Shakespeare's poetry.

The glittering cast list suggests that the composer Michael Kamen and the actor Alan Rickman did indeed self-consciously set out to draw on the success of earlier "popular" Shakespeare products. Joseph Fiennes opens and closes the CD with the "dream" lines from The Tempest: "We are such stuff/As dreams are made on, and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep." Des'ree, the soul singer whose performance of "Kissing You" was a high point of Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, features here with her own setting of Portia's "quality of mercy" speech from The Merchant of Venice.

The whole thing is packaged, chocolate box-style, as a delightfully bound book, carefully designed to look like one of the volumes in another cinematic homage to the Bard, Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books. The endpapers are thick with velvety crimson rose petals, the rose-petal-scattered CD in its own rose-petalled slip cover, tucked inside the back cover. It does not take the listener long, however, to discover that When Love Speaks is much more than a well-seized marketing opportunity. Almost all its cameo performances are of lasting value, and some are truly memorable.

Track 2, for instance, gives us Annie Lennox with a setting of Marlowe's "Live with me and be my Love" -- compelling and distinctively hers. …