Love’s Labour’s Lost – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Reviewer: Simon Tavener

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Emily Burns

Love’s Labour’s Lost is not an easy play to tackle as a director or cast member. The language is dense, packed with references that no longer have any meaning for contemporary audiences and some of the characters are very thinly drawn. Emily Burns and her team, the overwhelming majority of whom are new to the RSC, are to be congratulated on delivering a coherent, accessible and funny production that does not shy away from the challenges but rather tackles them head on with gusto.

Navarre is reimagined as a high end hotel resort complete with golf course and spa. This may deviate from more austere court Shakespeare intended, it gives the production a glossy elegance that immediately communicates to the audience what to expect.

Although the focus of the marketing has been on Luke Thompson because of his Bridgerton and A Little Life profile, this is very much an ensemble cast. Having said that, Thompson gives a very assured performance of perhaps Shakespeare’s most talkative romantic lead. Berowne has some fiendishly intricate lines but Thompson delivers them with speed, accuracy and a winning smile that makes one hope he is a frequent visitor to Stratford stages over the coming years.

The rest of the central octet are played with similar confidence and assurance. There is a good balance to their interpretations that chimes well with the contemporary vibe to the resetting of the production.

There are some fresh takes on characters that give the production a unique flavour. For perhaps the first time in any version of the play, Moth (Iskandar Eaton) emerges as a full participant in the action. He is a witty and wise contributor in every scene due, in part, to the reallocation of lines from the now cut Sir Nathaniel.

Nathan Foad as Costard gives an hilarious and equally innovative performance. Given free rein to embellish the text with well constructed asides, he does much to increase the accessibility of the text. Special praise must also go to Jordan Metcalfe as Boyet. Another of the many Shakespeare characters who can often fade into the background, his performance stands out for the bold choices and nuanced characterisation he brings to the role.

Throughout the performance, there are excellent sequences of physical comedy, not least in the very well handled Nine Worthies sequence in Act Five which can often be one of the most baffling moments in the play. Jack Bardoe as Don Armado excels in this and all his other scenes with both his physicality and verbal dexterity.

Another of the challenges set by Shakespeare is the tonal shift at the end of the play. This is handled with delicacy and confidence, rounding the evening off with a haunting musical sequence that brings real emotion to the stage. Full credit must go to Paul Englishby and the musical team for a well judged score that captures the mood perfectly.

For all the many positives, there are some minor infelicities that means it is not quite a perfect piece of work. The staging is, on the whole, strong but there are too many instances where the placement of the actors block significant moments for sections of the audience. With a thrust stage, audiences expect a certain amount of sight line issues but this is more noticeable than in any other recent production in this theatre.

Also, the updating and resetting of the production to a luxury resort/spa means that some of the characters seem somewhat lost in terms of how they fit into the society of the play – this is particularly evident with Holofernes and Costard. Their reason for being present in this version of Navarre is never explained. Whilst this may only be noticeable for audiences who know the play well, it is something that needs to be considered by directors when creating contemporary versions of Shakespeare.

These quibbles aside, it is a high quality start for the new artistic leadership in Stratford. With an interesting season ahead, we can feel optimistic about the future of the RSC.

Runs until 18 May 2024

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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