Love’s Labour’s Lost
By William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Friday 10th October 2014, Evening
THE COURT OF NAVARRE
Sam Alexander – King of Navarre
Edward Bennett – Berowne
William Belchambers – Longaville
Tunji Kasim – Dumaine
John Hodgkinson – Don Armado, a Spanish Traveller
THE FRENCH COURT
Leah Whitaker – Princess of France
Michelle Terry – Rosaline
Flora Spencer-Longhurst – Katharine
Frances McNamee – Maria
Jamie Newall – Lord Boyet, Equerry to the princess
Roderick Smith – Marcadé – an officer
David Horovitch – Holofernes, a schoolmaster
Thomas Wheatley – Sir Nathaniel, a curate
Chris McCalphy – Dull, a police constable
DOMESTICS AND ESTATE WORKERS
Nick Haverson – Costard, a gardener
Emma Manton – Jaquenetta, a dairymaid
Peter McGovern – Moth, a hall boy
Peter Basham – Butler
Roderick Smith – Gamekeeper
Sophie Khan Levy – Housemaid
Oliver Lynes – Footman
Chris Nayak – Footman
Harry Waller – Footman
SEE LINKED REVIEW OF Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing)
It’s a good concept. Two comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Much Ado About Nothing, under its speculative alternative title, Love’s Labour’s Won, are paired. It is speculation that the lost play Love’s Labour Won is actually Much Ado About Nothing. Scholars argue that it is rather a genuinely missing part two with the same characters, or perhaps The Taming of The Shrew, or Troilus and Cressida as well as arguing for Much Ado About Nothing.
The paired productions share a set based on the Elizabethan mansion, Charlecote Park, just outside Stratford, where rumour has it that young Shakespeare was caught poaching. The first play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is set in the late summer of 1914 just before World War One. The second, Love’s Labour’s Won, is set in the winter of 1918, just as the war has ended.
Love’s Labour’s Lost: summer / Love’s Labour’s Won: winter. From the RSC flier
The same company plays in both, with Edward Bennett and Michele Terry playing both leading sets of couples. While being extremely familiar with Much Ado About Nothing, this is the first time I have seen Love’s Labour’s Lost on stage.
Berowne in the tower
When a major concept really works, it is a joy. So often they just fail, but here the 1914 theme, so topical for Autumn 2014, works as well as any innovative Shakespeare setting can. A sublime production, just the sort of sparkling production that brings us back to the RSC and Stratford again and again. The two plays contrast. Love’s Labour’s Lost is mid-1590s, perhaps somewhat overladen with rhyming wordplay and pun, somewhat convoluted and, strangely for a comedy, has a sad ending, or rather an ending left in the air. Yes, it is has a reputation as a lesser play, but this director got every nuance and possibility and then added some. The characters are incurably romantic, and their wooing is almost back to courtly love with poems and gentle love tokens. Much Ado About Nothing is contrastingly realistic.
There are a number of set variations. The set is framed by two towers. We have a library, an interior with stained glass windows, a mighty outside gateway, a garden, a lodge in the gardens, and best of all a terrace among the chimneys on the rooftop, which appears, chimneys smoking, from below, and lifts into position. Luscombe is a master of unexpected locations, here it is that rooftop terrace, which is home to the best scene in the play, where all four male lovers reveal that they have foresworn their oaths to eschew the company of women.
The King of Navarre had organized their strict academic regime of fasting, no women etc for three years, right at the start. While Longeville and Dumaine agree to sign up, Berowne is marked out by being appalled and most reluctant from the outset. Having banned women, the King is put on the spot by the arrival of the Princess of France, and her three ladies. Each of the four swains falls for a corresponding woman, with Berowne falling for Rosaline, and the King falling for the Princess.
The terrace scene
You can tell when a cast are enjoying each other. There were several bits of near corpsing. Nick Haverson, as Costard the gardener, must be near impossible to keep a straight face opposite in a scene. I loved the way he kept being surprised by the accompanying music and tried to see the source. In that terrace scene, there were several points where the cast were on the edge of corpsing. I loved it. Best use of a teddy bear held by a man in pyjamas since Brideshead Revisited. Edward Bennett as Berowne, the central character and Sam Alexander, as the King of Navarre turn in a five star comedy performance, ably abetted by William Belchambers as Longeville and Tunji Kasim as Dusaine. We both went into the interval and said the same thing: this scene is the single best piece of direction we have seen this year.
L to R: Don Armado, Costard, PC Dull, Moth, Sir Nathaneal
There is a trio performance by the locals: Dull, the police constable, Holofernes, the schoolmaster and Sir Nathaniel, a curate … as in Merry Wives of Windsor, we have a knighted curate. They have a game of bowls, and Holofernes hits the target on stage, either great skill or a fluke. This is one of those Shakespeare scenes full of punning and twisted wordplay that make you groan when you see them cold on the page, but these three got laughs all the way through.
Costern and Don Armado
Another major character is Don Armardo, a “Spanish traveller.” Shakespeare enjoyed his funny foreigners, this one bursting with pomposity. He has business with the words “peace” and “art” which inevitably become “piss” and “arse.” On funny accents, there’s a “Look you” from Costard. I become more convinced that Shakespeare’s company had a “funny Welsh accent” specialist. The plays with funny Welshmen (Merry Wives of Winsdsor, Henry IV, Henry V) are studded with “Look you” as a marker, but this is the second “non-Welsh” comic character I’ve noticed saying “Look you.” Perhaps they originally played him as Welsh, written in for their resident comedian.
L to R: Rosaline, Maria, Princess of France, Katherine
The boy, Moth, assistant to Don Armado, is a major singing role, played by Peter McGovern, with two striking solo spots. Nigel Hess’s original settings evoke the era, and he says he had Ivor Novello in mind for the main theme. Hess creates a mini-operetta for the Nine Worthies scene, where Shakespeare was sending up the elaborate tableaux popular at aristocratic parties and events. Lord Boyet is equerry to the Princess of France and her three ladies, shepherding them around officiously, played by Jamie Newell. All the minor roles shine.
The play has two triumphantly big pieces in the second half. The first is where the four male swains appear dressed in disguise as “Muscovites” and do a frenetic Cossack dance. It is a masked piece, which they do with huge false beards. The other is the early play-within-a-play, The Nine Worthies, where Costard plays Pompey in a cloth boat, Moth the “boy” and singer plays a puny boy Hercules with padded arms and padded cobras, and Don Armardo plays Hector. The curate plays Alexander the Great. It’s done as a musical, a flat out musical too, with the curate continually losing the lyrics before finally making it through. It breaks into a fight between Costard and Don Armado when it is revealed that the country wench, Jacquenetta, is pregnant. Right in the middle of the loudest funniest scene in the play, bad news suddenly arrives. The Princess of France’s father is dead. The comedy just stops, and we go to the eventual sad ending, based again on song, with the four swains reappearing in military uniform. Autumn 1914. The fun is over. Off to war. What a difficult transition … and yet it works a dream. I recall that in the garden scene, the plants against a broken fence are poppies, hinting at what is to come.
The ending: Off to war … (the four swains are “behind camera” facing in)
We are left looking forward to Much Ado the next day (SEE LINK). There are similarities. Both have a masked section with characters addressing the wrong person. Both have concealment and overhearing. The programme explains that while the lovers continue … Edward Bennett plays both Berowne here, and Benedick in Much Ado. Michelle Terry plays both Rosaline here and Beatrice in Much Ado … the other actors don’t. The programme notes explain that after looking hard, they resisted the temptation to pair the other roles, and chose instead to let the actors display range by casting them differently.
Excellent, particularly the essay on production history.The play dates from 1596, and after initial popularity was dropped for most of 300 years, a possible reason being the accession to the throne of Marie Henrietta, as the wife of Charles I and the real King of Navarre’s daughter. Even before her accession in 1625, she was the wife of the heir. Laughing at a comic King of Navarre and the French in general might not have been wise.
Berowne was Sir Ian Richardson’s favourite role, and in 2008, both Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander appeared next to David Tennant’s RSC Berowne. Tennant has said the three roles he most coveted were Hamlet, Benedick and Berowne.