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Kenneth Branagh has directed his fifth screen adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but this time it's going straight to cable. Kevin Kline, Alfred Molina and Bryce Dallas Howard star in Mr. Branagh's treatment of "As You Like It" premiering this Tuesday on HBO. Kenneth Branagh sets the romantic comedy in Japan.

But as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, the main characters are still restless Westerners.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Kenneth Branagh first got the idea to set "As You Like It" in Japan 15 years ago. His theater company was on an international tour performing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "King Lear." For the first time, they traveled to Japan.

Mr. KENNETH BRANAGH (Director, "As You Like It"): It seemed to me that the Japanese landscape was very pain to leave. I was very aware of colors and textures and all the elements of the air, and water, of earth and fire. All of these things I found are very, very beguiling. And part of what the play "As You Like It" seemed to be saying the country could offer you, you know, peace and simplicity.

BLAIR: The Japanese elements in Branagh's adaptation of "As You Like It" include a kabuki play, marauding ninjas and a sumo-wrestling match. But the text and the characters are all Shakespeare.

(Soundbite of movie, "As You Like It")

Mr. KEVIN KLINE (Actor): (As Jacques) All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.

BLAIR: As serious as that familiar monologue might sound, "As You Like It" is mostly a comedy. Troubled political exiles suddenly find themselves roaming among the flowers and trees. Naturally in this serene setting, the men and women start to hook up.

Mr. BRANAGH: With that intensity and that preciousness, you know, people react very differently. They fall in love sooner. They fall in love more extravagantly. They are prone to more intense emotions of lust.

(Soundbite of movie, "As You Like It")

Mr. ALFRED MOLINA (Actor): (As Touchstone) I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths. Truly are with the gods had made me poetical.

Ms. JANET McTEER (Actress): (As Audrey) I do not know what poetical is.

BLAIR: That's the goatherd Audrey played by Janet McTeer being seduced in a barn by the lustful clown Touchstone played by Alfred Molina.

But the star of "As You Like It" is Rosalind, considered by many to be Shakespeare's greatest heroine. She's beautiful, complex and beloved. She's also got a tang to her wit, as Kenneth Branagh puts it. In one scene, she tells a young woman, when it comes to men, she should take what she can get.

(Soundbite of movie, "As You Like It")

Ms. BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD (Actress): (As Rosalind) For I must tell you friendly in your ear. Sell when you can. You are not for all markets. Cry the man mercy. Love him. Take his offer.

BLAIR: Rosalind is played by American actor Bryce Dallas Howard, who earlier this year was in "Spiderman 3." Rosalind spends most of the play posing as a boy, and that, says Howard, allows her to get away with a lot.

Ms. HOWARD: She has the chance to kind of reveal all of these female secrets, all of these things that women do when they, themselves, are in love or when they are married and how they change once they're married, and she's kind of chiding her own sex, chiding her own gender.

BLAIR: Rosalind says things like I am woman. When I think, I must speak. This was the second time Bryce Dallas Howard played Rosalind. The first was on stage several years ago. Howard says she wasn't satisfied with that performance. She auditioned for Kenneth Branagh because she wanted to get Rosalind right. Howard says for an actor there's nothing like Shakespeare.

Ms. HOWARD: There's nothing more challenging, and there's really, honestly nothing more gratifying when it works. Of course, when it doesn't, there's nothing more excruciating.

BLAIR: This cast includes such veteran Shakespearean actors as Molina, Brian Blessed and Kevin Kline who plays the gloomy character Jaques.

(Soundbite of movie, "As You Like It")

Ms. HOWARD: (As Rosalind) They say you're a melancholy fellow.

Mr. KLINE: (As Jacques) I am so. I do love it better than laughing.

Ms. HOWARD: (As Rosalind) They are that are in extremity of either are abominable fellows. And betray themselves to every modern censure worse than drunkards.

Mr. KLINE: (As Jaques) But why? 'tis good to be sad and say nothing.

BLAIR: Kevin Kline has performed Shakespeare on stage ever since attending Juilliard in the early 1970s. The actor in "As You Like It" works for scale. Kline says he hasn't been paid so little since the last time he made the Shakespeare movie "A Midsummer Night's Dream." But he loves the language and the material.

Mr. KLINE: The sad part is that actors today do not get as much exercise in the classics. In other words, you really have to do it or those muscles atrophy.

BLAIR: Audiences also need to make a commitment in order to appreciate Shakespeare. It might be wishful thinking, but Kline hopes people will watch "As You Like It" several times to deepen both their understanding and their enjoyment of it.

Mr. KLINE: The more you listen to it, the more you're steeped in it. That's why I tell my kids when - if they're coming to see me in a Shakespeare is, well, I don't, you know, we have to talk about it first. A little bit of preparation is required or repeated viewings.

BLAIR: For HBO subscribers, that's a possibility. The cable network will air "As You Like It" 50 times over the next month on its multiple channels.

It's been seven years since Kenneth Branagh made a film version of Shakespeare. The last one, a musical adaptation of "Love's Labour's Lost" flopped. His other Shakespeare films have mostly been praised, critically, but not made much money at the box office. Branagh seems relieved that "As You Like It" is going straight to cable.

Mr. BRANAGH: As we fight for audiences, the idea of it appearing on HBO and the possibility, therefore, of reaching a completely different kind of audience who, you know, might not be quick enough to get out and see it in that old house cinema on the one weekend it manages to hang on in the middle of the competition, that's an exciting development.

BLAIR: The first showing of "As You Like It" is this Tuesday night on HBO.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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