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Alas, poor Shakespeare: Branagh rewrites Hamlet

Actor shows his own play's the thing - but can he upstage the award-winning Emma Thompson?
Those who thought Shakespeare could not be improved will be in for a surprise next Thursday, when Kenneth Branagh's long-awaited screenplay of Hamlet hits the bookshops.

It offers the first and rather alarming insight into the three-and-a- half-hour film which opens on Valentine's Day and which stars Branagh as the deranged Dane and Kate Winslet as Ophelia. While the screenplay's cover credits the Bard's input, Branagh's name is in larger type, presumably in deference to the trouble Shakespeare's new collaborator has taken improving and adding to the play.

Admittedly, the adaptation, published by Chatto & Windus, uses the First Folio in its entirety. But after almost every speech, Branagh has added his own thoughts on the meaning and motivation.

Some of his comments - none of which is heard - are bizarre and others surreal in the context of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. At one point he describes the Danish King as going "into Norman Schwarzkopf mode", while after a gravedigger's speech he interjects: "Says Judge Ito." Later, the King and Queen are shown in bed. "Gertrude and Claudius have not been discussing the weather!" Branagh observes. When the screenplay has the King and his courtiers walking down a corridor, we are told: "It feels like a team of spin-doctors, media advisers and security experts briefing the President on the way to a White House press conference."

His crass approach contrasts embarrassingly with his estranged wife's Oscar-winning adaptation of another classic - Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, brought in by Emma Thompson at about half the length and with considerably more elegance. Coincidentally, it also co-starred Kate Winslet. Some of Branagh's comments are just off-the-wall. After Hamlet's speech - "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a King of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams" - Shakespeare's helpful collaborator remarks: "Oh no you don't. We've got you sussed."

Before the players perform to Hamlet, we learn: "They're all terribly excited. This, although unusual, looks as if it will be a good gig." When Hamlet tells Ophelia that a woman's love is brief, Branagh underlines the point: "Bloody hell. Everyone knows who that's meant for." When Guildenstern reproves Hamlet's discourtesy - "If it shall please you to make me a wholesome answer, I will do your mother's commandment" - the author exclaims: "Ooo. A bit narked are we?"

It is hard to know which reads more badly, Branagh's statements of the obvious or his musings on motivation. After Hamlet tells Polonius: "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" Branagh advises: "A passionate plea for kindness." When Hamlet tells Guildenstern Denmark's a prison, Branagh observes: "Oh. Metaphors. Thank Christ for that." And during the gravedigging scene, Branagh urges: "Get on with it then, Einstein." Branagh's low interjections after every fragment of dialogue makes it seem as if he is boorishly participating in every scene, this week's Times Literary Supplement cuttingly observes.

It adds: "After a few pages of such stuff, the commentary begins to read as though it is the work of a mysterious interloper into the play, an extra and rather louche character, someone from EastEnders, say, who has found himself transported to Elsinore and left to make what sense he can of what on earth is going on as he lurks at the back of the set."