Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

Kenneth Branagh's Multicultural and Multi-Ethnic Filmed Shakespeare(s)

Academic journal article Multicultural Shakespeare

Kenneth Branagh's Multicultural and Multi-Ethnic Filmed Shakespeare(s)

Article excerpt

One of the most striking features of Kenneth Branagh's approach to Shakespeare on screen is multicultural diversity most notably manifest in three dimensions: choice of the actors with differing ethnic backgrounds, choice of the place of action for his films, and choice of the time of action. Branagh has long been recognised as a director who carefully selects the temporal and spatial frame for the particular plays he chooses to film, one which he finds most fit in terms of the plays' filmic equivalents and cinematic conventions. For this reason he "travels" across time and place, introducing even such exotic locations, exotic in the eyes of the Western (multi-ethnic) viewers, as the 19th century Japan (As You Like It, 2006). On top of it, he does not hesitate to employ actors whose ethnicity may look, at first glance, rather odd when it comes to representing Shakespearean 16th-17th century Early Modern characters.1 The aim of the article will be thus an attempt to find reasons and rationale for Branagh's strategies; the search will centre around such issues as colour-blind casting, the cross-over between stage and screen, filmic realism and theatrical convention.

Political Correctness / Colourblindness?

Kenneth Branagh himself and in the eyes of critics and scholars is linked with especially two names of stage/film actors/directors: Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. As Samuel Crowl (Shakespeare and Film, 39-40) adequately notes his indebtedness to Olivier and Welles: "Branagh linked Olivier's theatricality and Welles's cinematic bravado with his own ripe romanticism to lead to the revival of the Shakespeare film in the 1990s." Earlier on, Crowl (Shakespeare and Film, 35) also combines the specific nature of the Branagh movies with his predecessor director-cum-actor Laurence Olivier: "in casting, the flair for the theatrically dramatic, and attention to Shakespeare's language, Branagh revealed his debt to Olivier." Crowl emphasises, and rightly so, the respect Branagh and Olivier share for the Shakespearean line, which-in Crowl's opinion-is more of the domain of the theatre rather than film. In this way, Crowl, too, makes us aware of how much theatrically informed Branagh's films are. As a result, Branagh shares with his artistic masters, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles, his theatrical and film experience and that of an actor/director (who can be called a stage/screen artist).2 But Branagh directed his films in a different period in a different culture: no longer had Moors to be rendered by blackened white actors, but black actors could perform these parts. Branagh took a step further: he decided to ignore this "cultural possibility" and employ actors who in his opinion fit the role they are to play and belong to the multicultural landscape of both Britain and especially the U.S.3 Less clear is Crowl's remark about Branagh's casting reflecting that of Olivier's since, apparently, I seem to argue otherwise. What perhaps was meant by Crowl is that Branagh chooses to cast in his film British actors who command a great experience of the stage.

However, the director himself (Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, x) explains the rationale behind his casting choices: "In crude terms, the challenge was to find experienced Shakespearean actors who were unpracticed on screen and team them with highly experienced film actors who were much less familiar with Shakespeare. Different accents, different looks." Branagh (Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, x) further claims:

I was also interested in one or two Italian and French actors. My aim was to be as international as possible [...] In the end the choices became simple [...] In all cases I explained accents, and that they must be prepared to study the text technically, as well as carry out their absolute obligation to be truthful.4

Neil Taylor, while discussing the cast for Hamlet notes that "Branagh manages to assemble international 'names', particularly Americans" (264). …

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