REVIEW: Love’s Labour’s Won, Royal Shakespeare Theatre ✭✭✭✭

The RSC production of Love's Labour's Won at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
The Company of Love’s Labour’s Won. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Love’s Labour’s Won
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
28 February 2015
4 Stars

Whether or not Shakespeare’s “lost” play, Love’s Labour’s Won, is actually lost or just a different name for one of the extant plays in the canon turns out, really, to be much ado about nothing. As Shakespeare himself said elsewhere: “What’s in a name?” And “The Play’s the thing”. If a new text is discovered, go crazy. Until then, do titles matter that much?

Based upon Christopher Luscombe’s production now playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in the case of Much Ado About Nothing, re-titling it as Love’s Labour’s Lost does not add anything to the understanding of the play, at least to the audience, as far as one can tell. Nor does pairing it with Love’s Labour’s Lost particularly bring insight or illumination.

The titling issue is not down to Luscombe; it was the idea of RSC Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, who says that “it has always struck me that these two plays belong together” and that “Much Ado About Nothing may also have been known as Love’s Labour’s Won in Shakespeare’s lifetime”. Doran might be right, but the pairing in this season does nothing to prove the point either way.

But while the title might not matter as much as the playing, it does have an effect. Love’s Labour’s Won (debate about placement of apostrophes aside) suggests, fundamentally, a play where love triumphs over adversity. Much Ado About Nothing does not suggest that at all. Indeed, on one scholarly view of it, the word “nothing” meant something different in Shakespeare’s time – a colloquial reference to the vagina. Looked at that way, the title roughly translates as Much Ado About Women. Which makes a lot of sense.

The play is firmly set in a very patriarchal society. Men rule everything except the knowledge their women have over what they have done with their bodies. Men are fearful of this and fear being revealed as a cuckold. Hence Claudio’s extreme reaction to the false news that Hero has been unfaithful to him and the willingness of all the men of rank to abandon her and not really lament her supposed death. Much ado about a woman – Hero – and all caused by the machinations of Don John.

The tricksy banter and faux viciousness between Benedick and Beatrice is another kind of ‘much ado’. Where the Hero/Claudio issue is not essentially funny, the Benedick/Beatrice one absolutely is. The whole manner of Dogberry’s investigations and revelations is yet another ‘much ado’. So the notion of ‘much ado’ abounds in the play; and the ado threatens to extinguish the love, making the notion of love’s labour’s winning seem inapt. Hero doesn’t win; Don John loses.

Equally, using the title Love’s Labour’s Won suggests that Benedick and Beatrice are the central characters and that one or both of them ‘wins’ in the end. But that is not really right. The play centres on Hero and Claudio; all narrative paths lead to or involve them. Hero is not so named for nothing. Don John’s machinations and the subsequent unravelling of Claudio and Hero’s wedding, Hero’s shaming, Dogberry’s investigations and revelations leading to the redemption of Hero – Beatrice and Benedick are bit players in this, the substantive narrative.

The modern fashion, followed by Luscombe here, is to make the play mostly about Beatrice and Benedick. But, in truth, if the work is to shine its brightest, more or, at least, equal attention needs to be given to Claudio and Hero. The play can be very funny, rapturously light pleasure, as it is in Luscombe’s hands. It can also be something altogether more absorbing, engaging and, just quietly, devastating. Yes, it ends on a happy note, but the track there is rocky and full of difficult issues which, in the Beatrice/Benedick Show, get swept aside. Flippant jocularity takes first position; the pain and grief true love can encounter, must overcome, is put on the low shelf. Hero’s tragedy is sidelined.

Really great productions of Much Ado About Nothing examine the tragedy of Hero and Claudio in luminous detail – from carefree happiness to the darkness of betrayal and rejection, to tentative reconciliation and beyond. The word games of the two Bs provides great, welcome respite from that key journey. And where the two distinct plots cross over, there is much to ponder.

When Don John’s plot comes to fruition and Hero is dammed by the men and “dies”, Beatrice demands that Benedick revenges Hero’s honour. That Benedick does what she wishes, by challenging Claudio to a duel, is the first real demonstration of his actual love for Beatrice. And the scene where the challenge is made is difficult for both men, Claudio feeling betrayed a second time, so high is his regard for honour and duty. These are but some of the key moments which don’t get enough attention in the Beatrice/Benedick Show.

Nevertheless, what Luscombe does present is very worthwhile. A very funny version of the Beatrice/Benedick show complete with magnificent, period set (Simon Highlett), some fabulous costumes, Nigel Hess’ delightful music and Jenny Arnold’s joyful movement. Setting the play in the post-World War 1 period works nicely; the sense of changing times is entirely appropriate. It’s a gentle but frisky time and you can almost hear the approach of the flappers. All the visual trappings, including Oliver Fenwick’s terrific lighting, bring beauty and style to the interpretation of the text.

Michelle Terry and Edward Bennett excel as Beatrice and Benedick respectively. Terry is in terrific form, with a grin that would wither obsidian and sparkling, acidic, turns of phrase. Her very best work comes in her silent exchange with Claudio after Hero’s redemption. Bennett enjoys himself tremendously, especially in the scene where he takes refuge in a huge Christmas tree to overhear what his fellows have to say about whatever Beatrice feels for him. He is infectiously charming and silly. Together, they produce a jewel chest of comic treasures.

There is superb work from the older men in the company: David Horovitch (an absolute joy to listen to his warm, mellifluous voice), John Hodgkinson, Thomas Wheatley and Jamie Newall. Nick Haverson is a splendid, gormless Dogberry and Roderick Smith’s Verges was a delicious accompaniment to the constabulary buffoonery and sleuthing.

Sam Alexander was oily and vile as the ghastly Don John, though I would have preferred to understand why he sought to wreak the union of Claudio and Hero. His lamp, limp hair was an especially good touch and it was great to see Alexander subverting his usual affable charm.

Harry Waller was in fine voice as Balthasar, his singing a true highlight. Frances McNamee and Emma Manton were suitably perky, giggly and mischievous as the maids, Ursula and Margaret.

Tunji Kasim was a handsome Claudio and it was difficult not to be enchanted by his performance, so lacking in hard edges was it. He handled the text well, but there is more to Claudio than this production cared to examine. Equally, Hero – Flora Spencer-Longhurst was perfectly lovely, gorgeous even, but there are real shafts of agony for Hero to endure and the Beatrice/Benedick Show permitted them not. Both seem capable, actually more than that, of rising to the grater demands of their roles; it is a pity that a triumph of zippy confection was thought more appropriate, so that they were denied the chance.

This Love’s Labour’s Won was vastly enjoyable, a slick, hilarious and quite gorgeous night at the theatre. It has been a long time since I have heard a Stratford Upon Avon audience as fulsome in their appreciation as was the audience who shared this experience with me. Popular and pretty. The brilliant Beatrice/Benedick Show!

Me? I would rather a production of Much Ado About Nothing.

Love’s Labour’s Won runs until March 3 at the RSC

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