Love’s Labour’s Won
(Much AdoAbout Nothing)
By William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Saturday 11th October 2014, Evening
David Horovitch – Leonato
Thomas Wheatley – Antonio, his brother
Flora Spencer-Longhurst – Hero, Leonato’s daughter
Michelle Terry – Beatrice, Leonato’s niece
Harry Waller – Balthasar, Antonio’s son
Emma Manton – Margaret, Lady’s maid to Hero
Frances McNamee – Ursula, Lady’s maid to Beatrice
Chris Nayak – Borachio, a footman
Peter Basham – Butler
Sophie Khan Levy – Housemaid
John Hodgkinson – Prince Don Pedro
Sam Alexander – Don John, his brother
Edward Bennett – Benedick, an officer
Tunji Kasim – Count Claudio
William Belchambers – Conrade
Oliver Lynes – Dispatch rider
Nick Haverson – Dogberry, a constable
Roderick Smith – Verges, deputy constable
Peter McGovern – George Seacoal
Oliver Lynes – Hugh Oatcake
Peter Basham – Francis Pickbone
Chris McCalphy – Sexton
Jamie Newall – Friar Francis
Love’s Labour’s Won …
Or not. See the linked review of Love’s Labour’s Lost. This is really Much Ado About Nothing. These two productions have been paired for the first time, with “Lost” set in late summer 1914 before the Great War, and “Won” set after it ended just before Christmas 1918. We are strongly in Downton Abbey territory then, and we watched them on successive days.
Many will argue that there is little evidence that the missing play, Love’s Labour’s Won, was actually Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a speculative jump, but still a nice idea.
I had an advantage in watching this production in that I have spent a great deal of time with Much Ado About Nothing this year. Out of the blue, I was asked if I could do a graded ELT reader from Much Ado About Nothing, specifically requested by an education ministry abroad. As I was due to see the small cast, doubling-up energetic Globe production that weekend, and had seen the truly disastrous James Earl Jones-Vanessa Redgrave Old Vic production last year, AND I did it for A level, I agreed to think about it. I did it, and apart from re-reading it many times, I watched a small pile of DVDs too. All in all, I’m pretty good on the plot now. I had always joked about simplified ELT versions of Shakespeare and swore I would never do one. But I did, in play form and at intermediate level too. Coincidentally when we discussed illustration style, we went for pre- Great War European too for the simplified reader.
Beatrice as nurse, Benedick sitting on bed
We begin at the RSC with hospital beds lined up in the stately home library, Leonato is in uniform, and Hero, Beatrice, Ursula and Margaret are dressed as nurses. It’s like the convalescent home that Downtown Abbey was temporarily … or many country houses were. The soldiers return from war, and Don John (Sam Alexander) is limping and on a crutch. Borachio is his valet, Conrade is another officer. The crutch helps put Don John in a meaner mood no doubt.
For Don John’s first plotting scene, he and Conrade appear from below playing billiards on a full size table (and Conrade neatly pots the red). We see a drawing room with a magnificent Christmas tree for the masked ball scene, which is wisely done with eye masks as in all sensible productions … you don’t want muffled voices. As in Love’s Labour’s Lost there is a major piano and vocal piece here.
The mask scene
The two great comedy scenes in the play are Benedick (Edward Bennett) overhearing the others saying that Beatrice (Michelle Terry) loves him, then Beatrice being tricked by Hero and Ursula, saying Benedick loves her. The Benedick scene was done in the drawing room, first with him behind the curtains, then with the huge Christmas tree. No plot spoilers but the comic business was flat out hilarious … shocking, you might say, sparking. Edward Bennett is a comedy actor in the Rik Mayall / Rowan Atkinson league.
Benedick (after eavesdropping sene)
Having done the funniest Benedick eavesdropping scene I’ve ever seen, there was an intelligent and subtle piece of direction. Luscombe did not go on to similar hilarity from Beatrice … you couldn’t have topped it and it would have been overkill to match it. Instead, the comedy in Beatrice’s eavesdropping is focussed on Hero and Ursula, while Beatrice watches from tower window. Ursula and Hero are in the garden, outside the gate to the house. It is winter throughout the play and the lighting is frosty. Ursula (Frances McNamee) has an Irish accent and crosses herself a lot. Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) is getting nervous because Ursula is overdoing the drama of the retelling and she fears Beatrice will suss it. I think it was a wise move for the play as a whole, though it removed the very obvious reason for Beatrice’s cold in the next act … in at least two productions she gets soaked with water while eavesdropping. Except that while everyone else is in overcoats in this outdoor scene and she’s in a blouse and trousers. A bit subtle.
Part two starts with the whole cast, dressed in overcoats in semi darkness singing In The Bleak Midwinter. Then we introduce Dogberry and the Watch. Dogberry is a British bobby on a bike. Verges is a bobby too. The production notes say they did not parallel roles with Love’s Labour’s Lost, except for Beatrice and Benedick. However, Nick Haverson, the gardener, and the main comic role in “Lost” is also Dogberry in “Won.” Also, just as the schoolmaster and the parson are always together in “Lost”, we see them as a team, Leonato and his brother, Antonio, in “Won.”
The rising central stage is used a lot … it is Hero’s dressing room, the Sexton’s house and Hero’s tomb.
L to R: Verges, Seacole, Sexton (seated),Conrade (standing), Borachio, Dogberry
The interrogation of Borachio and Conrade is the comedy centrepiece of the second half, with them all acting as if in a very tight space, and hardly able to get round the table. There is much business with a hot teapot, tea cups and biscuits. I thought Chris Nayak as Borachio was silently brilliant throughout this scene … his expressions of disdain and then disgust at Dogberry’s spitting and shouting were first rate reactive acting, and of course made Dogberry even funnier. I liked the fact that they were NOT the often-done thuggish brokers’ men double act, but Conrade was an officer and a toff, and Borachio the snooty valet.
The wedding involved a full church with pews rolling forward to fill the set. It was played for full on drama. Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Hero was genuinely touching, girlishly elated at the start, disbelieving, shocked, then fainting. This is the dreaded heroine role, which often comes across as bland, but she was superb in it and made Hero a much fuller character than usually comes across.
I noticed that in the church scenes the voices echoed as they would in a church. Was this merely an effect of the set, pushed right forward on the thrust stage, or was it (as I think) concealed mics adding an echo process above the natural unamplified voices? Very clever sound if so. It was played totally real, dramatic, sad. Not a hint of overplaying or sending up the high drama (which it has to be said is sometimes done). Benedick and Beatrice both stayed serious. In fact throughout the play, the fact that Leonato (David Horovitch), Antonio (Thomas Wheatley), Claudio (Tunji Kasim) and Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson) were played absolutely straight enhanced the focus of humour on Beatrice and Benedick. The watch is always a separate element played for farce, and rarely intersects with the rest of the action. Because of this, the whole play seemed more “real” and genuinely 1918 than I would have expected from a Shakespeare comedy.
Benedick: Edward Bennett – true comic genius throughout
In the last year, I’ve seen the misguided one (The Old Vic) and the excellent cut-down high energy Globe production, as well as the previous Globe on DVD and the films. This RSC production is the complete Much Ado About Nothing, with the full comic to tragic range. The post-World War One theme worked perfectly. Beautifully acted by every single cast member, memorable music score, state of the art realistic set design. Great comedy direction. Five star. In fact, Lost and Won are a pair of five star productions.
OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING reviewed on this blog:
Much Ado About Nothing, The Old Vic, 2013 with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave
JOSS WHELDON’S film version: