REVIEW: Love’s Labour Lost, Royal Shakespeare Company ✭✭✭✭

RSC Love's Labour Lost
Love’s Labour Lost. Photo: Alastair Muir

Love’s Labour’s Lost
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
15 November 2014
4 Stars

It is, I think, safe to say that Simon Higlett’s delicious and supremely beautiful design for Christopher Luscombe’s production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, now playing in Stratford Upon Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, is the most ambitious, most evocative, and most successful combination of set and costumes seen since the refurbished theatre reopened. It is a visual triumph and provides the perfect environment for the text.

Based upon the real Charlecote Park (where both Dame Judi Dench and Shakespeare were, in different centuries, involved in allegations of deer poaching) the set makes use of a huge travelling truck, a trapdoor which permits a gorgeous decorative rooftop to emerge from below stage and two imposing gatehouse towers; there is a wonderful library and a beautiful English lawn as well as other treats. Together with the delicious costumes, the entire effect is glorious – a fading English Summer from a distant time.

Part of the trick here is that this set is also used in Luscombe’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, which Gregory Doran has retitled Love’s Labour’s Won for the purpose of this RSC season, so, presumably, it has twice the budget of a one-off production. Nevertheless, it is an absolute triumph of design; skill, ingenuity and practicality in perfect harmony.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is often compared unfavourably to Much Ado About Nothing but it has never been easy to understand why. Both feature two central sets of couples who flirt and fight, both feature sharp verbal interplay between one of those couples, both are full of misunderstandings and involve vows being broken and both feature a sub-plot involving an odd male character pursuing his own ends. One ends more happily, in the conventional sense, than the other, but then the hint is in the title – Love’s Labour’s Lost. Even then, the labours are not lost, merely postponed, at least in theory.

Looked at this way, Doran’s decision to re-title Much Ado About Nothing makes sense. Both plays have great similarities but different outcomes. It seems a natural pairing. And if that were the extent of the “meddling” there would be little about which to complain.

But Luscombe appears unwilling to let the text do the work, imposing an Operetta sensibility to the piece which, at first, seems odd but charming, but which later, in the second Act, becomes over-fussy, slightly self-defeating and utterly incongruous. And then, artlessly and truly counter to the spirit of Shakespeare’s own ending, the four wooing men (the King of Navarro and his fellow students) appear in uniform, salute their ladies and friends and set off for the First World War – and probable death. Obviously, the insertion of the war motif serves to assist the overall season, with one play set pre-war and the other post, but it seemed clunkier and more jarring than one of Don Armado’s ill-composed bon mots.

Luckily, in most other respects, the production is blessed with good acting, impeccable timing and a sense of style, mischief and swagger which accentuates its high points. Much Ado About Nothing is often described as the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s verbal jousting, but, in truth, Love’s Labour’s Lost has that honour. Pretty much everyone is trying to best everyone else with an armoury of quips, quibbles and quizzical asides and, happily, Luscombe seeks to make the most of this.

Far and away the most glorious at this barbed repartee is Michelle Terry, whose Rosaline sparkles and cuts like the multi-faceted diamond she should be. Terry is gifted and accomplished, each verbal thrust perfectly delivered and a joy to hear. She handles the quick passages with consummate ease, is the perfect fellow to her sisters in wooing and, flawlessly, makes Berowne, her ardent admirer, mis-step and flounder as her tongue trips him up. Terry is an absolute joy to watch.

Sam Alexander is marvellous as the slightly pompous, slightly dim, but utterly charming King of Navarre. He has an endearing puppy-dog-lost-in-a-fog expression which is beguiling and, at the same time, can produce steely resolve in an instant. It’s a convincing regal turn and a delight to watch and hear, so suffused with joy and spirit is his performance. He threw himself into the Muscovite dance routine (when he and his fellows are attempting to play mischief with their loves) with an irresistible wholeheartedness. Really impressive.

As the Princess of France, Leah Whitaker is elegance and regency personified. A certain haughtiness, light and ephemeral, imbues her every gesture and phrase and you feel she is both pampered and precise. She gets into the girly spirit of the machinations with a kind of hockey girl enthusiasm, but constantly maintains a distance from her subjects, exactly as Alexander’s King does. They seem a perfect match. When the news of her father’s death arrives, Whitaker is immaculate – she perfectly conveys the sense of her personal loss, her duty to her country and her deceased father and, gently but firmly, refuses Alexander’s hand until the 12 month mourning period has passed. It’s a devastating moment, beautifully judged.

Berowne is the role people suspect Shakespeare wrote for himself and it is a gift; a marvellous combination of fast, witty exchanges, some open buffoonery, glorious one-liners, enchanting and poetic monologues and moments of breathless clarity about the human condition. Edward Bennett makes a good Berowne – his clarity and sureness makes the fast passages whirl with amusement and his grasp of language and technique ensures his speeches, especially the one aimed at inspiring his fellows at the end of Act One, are rapturous, inspiring and quite beautiful. But he could be more mischievous, more assured, more determined about his own abilities and prowess, for it is from that sense of his self that much mirth can be mined.

Don Armado can be a tiresome role; it requires a proper comic actor with precise technique and a spirited sense of self-deprecation. There are many silly lines and cod jokes to make work, and John Hodgkinson does a superb job as this silly-accented clown. He has especially marvellous assistance from Peter McGovern’s Moth, a bright-as-a-button bell boy with a quick wit, a cheery disposition and a nice singing voice. McGovern energises every scene he enters and his Moth is perfect, buzzing around the flame of the dotty Don Armado.

David Horovitch is quite wonderful as the terse, loquacious and pretentious schoolmaster, Holofernes; Jamie Newall makes Boyet a champagne addict ambassador of tremendous grace and style; Tunji Kasim is a delight as the teddy-bear obsessed Dumaine (in a humorous nod to Brideshead Revisited) who can squeal as well as he can woo; and Roderick Smith delivers the bad news about the Princess’ father with sombre precision.

Nick Haverson (Costard) and Emma Manton (Jacquenetta) were trying a trifle too hard with their stock rustic characters; neither were helped by the faux Gilbert and Sullivan folly Luscombe has superglued to proceedings. Otherwise, the rest of the cast here assembled are in good form and help proceedings achieve an overall sense of consistent joy.

Nigel Hess provides some nice incidental music but none of the settings of the songs Shakespeare wrote as part of the play are more than trifling delights. Oliver Fenwick lights everything expertly, making the set and costumes sparkle, and there are quite transfixing tableaux involving the four sets of lovers. There is a surfeit of talent involved in making this production look as good as it does.

There is so much to like and enjoy here. Luscombe has assembled an exemplary cast and crew for this project. Concentration on the text, however, rather than diversion into operetta would have yielded better results. But, no question, when the final bows end here, you want to see this company in the companion piece, Love’s Labour’s Won.

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