Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Coming in hot from the Chichester Theatre Festival this vivacious version of one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies is sure to be a welcome transplant to the capital.
Forming part of a double with its potential sequel (debate rages on) Much Ado About Nothing with the same cast, director, designer and also in the Theatre Royal, it’s as strong on its own as it is with that other excellent production. Laid out with intelligence, the shows are set in the early to late teens of the 20th Century, bookending the Great War and injecting solemnity into the gadabout farce that makes up a lot of the action on stage. Taken as a whole, the two plays feel about equal in comedy and sadness, though the levity is frontloaded here in Love’s Labour’s Lost, followed by quite a sombre Much Ado.
The first of the pair revolves around the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and his three studious friends, and the Princess of France (Leah Whittaker) with her three ladies in waiting. While the men have sworn celibacy for three years while they study, the ladies come to visit on a (slightly misplaced given the time the play’s set in) mission to reclaim land in France from the King. Love, of course, blossoms and with much extravagance of language we see these nobles, other members of the wider court and some commoners caper the play along to its conclusion.
It’s in this conclusion that we see the true value of this piece. All through the work, there’s flighty and playful wordplay. The gentlemen declaim love, the ladies spar with them and with performers of this quality it’s an absolute treat to be taken along on such a deftly constructed ride. However, the play’s heart is obscured by this “sweet smoke of rhetoric”. We trip gaily to a happy ending and then find ourselves cruelly dashed with the interruption of a messenger bearing news of death and causing the young lords to put on their officer’s uniforms and head to the front. Short on dialogue, it’s a hard-hitting moment, very well-crafted and genuinely affecting.
As lead romantics and most witty partners in romantic badinage, Edward Bennett and Lisa Dillon (Berowne and Rosaline) are the engine room of the love and laughter in this. Excellently executed passages of some of Shakespeare’s most impenetrable poetry mean after an initial period of adjustment, these two carry the audience and the rest of the play along as one. John Hodgkison as the outrageous Don Armado is all bombast and emotion – his accent and demeanour rendering every utterance a classic line. He’s matched for wit by his valet played by Peter McGovern, with their interactions veering from difficult to follow due to the complexity of the language, to just delightful.
All this is put forth in an excellent set, designed by Simon Higlett and lit by Oliver Fenwick with such detail and attention to colour that it somehow feels like something cinematic designed to showcase the latest ultra-high definition projection tech. It’s fantastically musically supported with original songs given a contemporary (with the play’s early 20th Century setting) turn-out by Bob Broad and the cast as chorus.
With the decision to set it pre-war, allowing a natural break for the requested “twelve months and a day” before the lovers can finally come together we are naturally led to contemplate the impact of the conflict so much of 2016 has been spent commemorating. Without the concluding part of Much Ado it still serves as a thought-provoking conceit, presented in a multi-faceted and highly enjoyable production. One moment gambolling along, the next heavy with sorrow. With the second part, it gains emotional and narrative closure – it’s interesting to consider after viewing this first whether that’s actually needed at all.
Runs until 18 March 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan