Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
This collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Chichester Festival Theatre enjoys a brief residency in Manchester before wending its way West End-wards. It is paired with Much Ado About Nothing, sharing cast and creatives, as well as set and period setting. But while the fading Edwardian era is common to both plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost basks in the last summer of peace before the deluge of the First World War; its companion piece sets its narrative against the aftermath of that inundation.
The two plays were written several years apart, and Love’s Labour’s Lost bears many of the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s early efforts. The verbal wit and wordplay are intricate and quickfire, often passing the modern ear unnoticed and unappreciated. Verse forms are more slavishly followed, with more frequent use of rhyme, giving a “sing-song” quality to some of the more mannered exchanges. Director Christopher Luscombe has made a virtue of this, to bring the musicality of the piece to the fore, seizing any opportunity to turn a refrain into an aria, and using Nigel Hess’ score to set the shifting tones of the play from the martial to the comic to the pathetic.
The plot, for a comedy, is relatively simple, and for once involves neither cross-dressing princesses or separated twins, or both. The King of Navarre and his courtiers have vowed to forsake earthly pleasures for a year in order to devote themselves to learning. Their court is visited by the Princess of France with her female attendants, and the Lords are smitten. They disavow celibacy to pursue their loves, initially disguised as wandering muscovites (of course). The ladies of the French court assume that these declarations of affection are in jest, and mock their would-be lovers. Tragic news of the French King’s death breaks up the party before reconciliations can be effected, and the men retire to a year of penance after which they hope to rekindle the relationships. So Shakespeare manages to set up a masterful rom-com, and then undercuts it with an ending left hanging in mid-air. Not very Hollywood.
The simple plot outline belies some of the strengths of the play, and of the talent which Shakespeare was developing for the portrayal of charismatic characters. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, the razor-tongued Berowne – sublimely played by Edward Bennett – is an early template for several later Shakespeare creations. Lisa Dillon, as Rosaline, is only slightly less obviously a prototype for feisty heroines from Beatrice in “Much Ado” to Katherine in Taming of the Shrew and even Paulina in Winter’s Tale”. The comic characters are also well drawn and brilliantly enacted, particularly by John Hodkinson as Don Armado, often described as “fantastical” and here played as the lost brother of the TV baritone selling car insurance.
If the original material has the inevitable flaws of the playwright’s early work, this production overwhelms these by pulling out every stop to celebrate its successes: To mock the joyful follies of the lovers, to delight in the playfulness of the language, to relish the stylishness of the royal courts, and to celebrate the absurdities of the mating game. In passing, there are a few satirical swipes at buffoons of various varieties, especially those who pride themselves on their wit and wisdom. The young Will Shakespeare was not always appreciated by his contemporary critics, who were often his rivals, and here he takes his revenge in the form of Holofernes, the pompous schoolmaster, played to ridiculous perfection by Steven Pacey.
The country house set is ingenious, in terms of engineering, but throughout provides the perfect foil for the action. At one point the love-struck courtiers each visit the roof terrace to read their sonnets in the moonlight, unaware that they are observed and overheard by the others. They scuttle about the roof slates, cling to the parapet and hug the barley twist chimneys, in a magical mixture of absurdity and poignancy. The courtiers’ clothes are pin-sharp Edwardian suiting, and the elegant ladies of the French court could have stepped directly from the Ascot of My Fair Lady.
Music, as earlier mentioned, provides the keynote statements to several scenes in the play, and is also used for incidental purposes, to heighten the emotional heft of some passages, or for ironic comic effect. Dancing features too, as the disguised lovers entertain the French court with a hysterical display of Cossack choreography. The mood changes as the lovers part at the play’s finale. The cast provides a choral backdrop with a poignant Elgarian anthem for the young courtiers now kitted out in military uniforms. Not an upbeat ending, but a fittingly delicate valediction to a world about to pass away. Perfectly judged.
Runs until 3 December 2016 | Image: Manuel Harlan