Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: James Garrington
Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Gregory Doran. tells us in the programme notes that he has long held the opinion that Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing belong together. At the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost two of the lovers, Berowne and Rosaline, are unable to be together and forced to spend a period of time apart. Move to the start of Much Ado About Nothing, and you find a pair of sparring lovers who meet again having spent a period of time apart, only to continue their stormy relationship. This season, the RSC have chosen to play them as a pair of linked productions, renaming Much Ado About Nothing as Love’s Labour’s Won. It is known that Shakespeare wrote a play with this title, but at this time it remains lost; unless it is an alternative title for an existing play, in which case Much Ado seems like a very strong candidate.
The plays are here presented almost as a single piece, though there is no doubt that the productions stand on their own too, so there is no obligation to see the pair; nevertheless they have been produced in a way that adds to the synergy between them. The setting for the plays is an English country house, based on nearby Charlecote Park, in the period immediately before and after the First World War. We begin in the summer of 1914; gloriously hot and idyllic, with a carefree elegance. The King and his courtiers swear that they will dedicate themselves to study, and will avoid distraction by staying away from women, but their resolve is tested, and found wanting, when the Princess of France arrives with her ladies-in-waiting. Following a mix-up with love letters, the men’s inability to keep their oaths is revealed and they decide to court the ladies instead. In fact the whole play revolves around confusions and misunderstandings, with some clever word play added to the mix. Director Christopher Luscombe has applied a great deal of attention to detail in finding lots of humorous business in what many believe to not be one of Shakespeare’s best plays, and there are a number of moments that will remain with me for a long time, including one scene involving Russian dancers who can apparently only speak in broken English.
Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry play the lovers Berowne and Rosaline. Bennett’s Berowne is suitably confident and arrogant, refusing initially to go along with the oath to focus on study and pointing out all the flaws in the plan before agreeing, assuring everyone that he won’t be the first to falter; though of course that is exactly what happens. One of the highlights of the production is a scene that he has on a roof, with his companions the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander), Longaville (William Belchambers) and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim) where every ounce of humour has been wrung from the setting. As Berowne’s protagonist Rosaline, Michelle Terry provides a sharp and witty foil to counter his advances, with a gleeful glint in her eye as she conspires to trick the men.
This production is full of comedy, much of it provided by Nick Haverson as Costard the country bumpkin who is at the centre of many of the confusions. He has a lot of humour in the script, but adds to it considerably by facial expressions and business, and it seems as though he was made for this sort of rôle. Further comedy is added by Holofernes the pedantic schoolmaster (David Horovitch) and Sir Nathaniel (Thomas Wheatley) whose dialogue is full of wordplay, and who provide a memorable scene at a bowling green with Don Armado (John Hodgkinson) and Dull the constable (Chris McAlphy). In the hands of the wrong director and cast this play would be very dull, but there is no such danger here. Overall this is a very witty production, with a lot of the humour benefitting from being quite subtle and a lot of laughs throughout; this adds to the poignancy of a cleverly devised final scene which provides a strong alternative to what is otherwise a very weak ending to the play.
Move forward to autumn 1918, and Love’s Labour’s Won, and the world has changed. Benedick and Claudio return home from the war, into what seems initially to be a military hospital set up in the house but which quickly gives way to a world of sparkling house parties. Claudio meets and falls in love with Hero, while Benedick resumes his sparring relationship with Beatrice. The similarities between the two plays are emphasised by having the same cast play similar rôles in the two pieces. For some of the men, there is little change. Bennett’s portrayal of Benedick is in many ways similar to his Berowne, full of bluster and denial before realisation of his love for Beatrice is pointed out to him, and Kasim plays Claudio in a similar vein to his Dumaine in the earlier play. Not so for the ladies however. Here Terry brings an extra layer of acerbic wit to her Beatrice, as the soon-to-be lovers spark against each other. Having had a lesser rôle in Love’s Labour’s Lost as Katherine, a lady at the court, Flora Spencer-Longhurst provides a wonderful Hero, full of innocent charm until she is falsely accused by Claudio when she brings a real depth of emotion to the rôle.
Comedy is again provided by Haverson, this time as Dogberry the constable. His humour derives not only from his constant use of malapropisms but also in his mannerisms and the physical business that he gets involved with, including a memorable scene when questioning two suspects. Unlike Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is witty throughout, much if the comedy in this play is focussed in the first half; and unlike the current RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, most of the comedy in this piece is unsubtle and obvious. At times it develops a slapstick nature, and although that is often the case with productions of Much Ado it would be refreshing to see a change here, and is a disappointment after the quality of the humour in the earlier piece.
Accompanying both productions is original music composed by Nigel Hess, who has done a magnificent job in creating music that is entirely apt and in keeping with the period; and as fashions have changed between one play and the next, so has the style of music. Hence we have Love’s Labour’s Lost with music that sounds very much like Ivor Novello and Edward German, with a hint of Sullivan thrown in, and a Love’s Labour’s Won which has moved onto Noel Coward and the start of the jazz era. A lot of his music is sung, showing many fine voices among the cast too.
Having chosen to set this pair of plays in a country house, much relies on the set and designer Simon Higlett has delivered an absolute beauty here. It has all of the trappings of the house; drawing room, billiard room, rooftop and gardens – plus a church interior, and a police station, moving effortlessly from one to another thanks to the superb space and facilities at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The set is exquisite in the detail that Higlett has included and must rank among the finest that I have seen for a long time.
Whether Shakespeare intended the plays to be considered as a pair is still a matter for speculation; if that was the intention, then it would surely have made sense to give his characters the same names in each play, though thinking of Much Ado About Nothing as Love’s Labour’s Won does seem to have some merit. For me, there is nothing inherently wrong with setting them either side of the war as a theatrical device; although one member of the audience I was talking to between the two shows suggested that the RSC had “simply jumped on the World War One bandwagon” and considered it somewhat unnecessary trick. For me it is interesting to see how the different classic plays can be adapted and set in different eras and locations, and a country house at that time fits the bill admirably.
Overall, these two productions provide a fascinating day’s entertainment in the way they have been conceived, staged and performed.
Photo: Manuel Harlan | Runs until 14th March 2015