Love’s Labour’s Lost – RSC, Stratford upon Avon, 28th February 2015
What happens if four men sign an oath swearing to not see a woman and commit to three years of studying and fasting? What if those four men forget that a Princess of France and her ladies are due to visit the court in just a few days? The answer hilarious consequences and hijinks.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has teamed up the slap stick comedy with Much Ado About Nothing, playing under the name of the highly rumoured missing play Love’s Labour’s Won. Love’s Labour’s Lost is set pre World War I in the Edwardian era.
The King of Navarre and his fellow companions in study Berowne, Dumaine and Longaville played by Sam Alexander, Edward Bennett, Tunji Kasim and William Belchambers respectively fall into their roles as the opening scenes see them debating and discussing the oath that they are about to sign. Just as soon as the oath is signed and the punishment for breaking the oath is declared the men are reminded that the Princess of France is due to visit the court, this surely means that they will instantly break their oaths. Instead meet lodge the ladies outside the court in a field and meet them there, ensuring that the oath remains intact. Well that is until they see them!
Berowne and Rosaline’s first meeting, in a play where language is powerful and conveys double meanings, are a meeting of wits. However, Michelle Terry’s Rosaline in harsher in her words than I have ever interpreted before and is almost mocking Edward Bennett’s Berowne for showing an interest in her. I personally imagined that Berowne and Rosaline’s conversations were more flirtatious and jovial than they come across on stage.
John Hodgkinson’s passionate Spainiard Don Armando provides many laughs alongside his brilliantly underpraised page, Peter McGovern and when they are combined with Nick Haverson’s Costard it is a case of amazing casting. Nick Haverson as Costard completely steals every scene he is in, his comedic timing is spot on and he plays the hapless fool to many laughs from the audience. Haverson was very nearly the star of the show had it not been for the Dumaine’s teddy during the scene whether they each learn that the others have broken their oath almost as soon as they had made it. Set atop an elaborate rooftop each of the men reveal through letters, sonnets and talking to their teddy just how they feel about the ladies who have entered their court. Bennett’s Berowne shines here throwing in his quips as each man talks whilst concealing his own feelings. However, it is teddy, in his dressing gown to match his owner that gets the loudest laughs. Why replicas were not being sold in the shop is beyond me, the RSC would have a queue of people wanting to buy the adorable little bear!
With Berowne’s quick thinking talking them out of their oaths, the men decide to dress as Muscavites and visit the ladies. Along with this is the most elaborate song and dance that praises the women and their beauty. It was good to see so much effort go into the Russian entertainment with past productions just having the men doing a little jig on stage before carrying on with the scene, you can tell that a lot of effort went into getting this right and as such it really pays off. Jamie Newell’s wonderfully elegant and sometimes sarcastic Boyet, having informed the ladies of the impending imposters help them trick the haplessly in love men into declaring intents to the wrong women. When they return as themselves Leah Whitaker’s highly intelligent Princess of France and her ladies openly mock and exposes the men. The men apologise and all is righted with them learning that they have been tricked themselves. They settle down to watch a very amateur production of the Nine Worthies put on by Don Armado, Costard and companions. Full of wonderful costumes, forgotten lines and a fight between Costard and Don Armado, the play within a play could almost be staged independently.
The leisurely entertainment is interrupted by news that the Princess’ father has died and they must return to France. An unusual end to what is often portrayed as a comedy. The men are told to wait a year and a day to prove their love and that they will not break it as easily as their oaths to study. A harsh ending made worse when the King and his men return in full soldier uniforms as they head off to fight in World War I. A reminder that promises were broken at that time and that love was a difficult emotion to contain.
For a play that is about love, emotion and broken oaths the language is as important as the ideas behind the play. Misunderstanding and double meanings turn situations on their heads. The verbal jousting between lovers can be interpreted as jovial courtly love or the women mocking the men and accusing them of being false, which is how it felt at times in this production.
The impressive set, based on nearly Charlecote Park, looks like it could be straight out of Downton Abbey, really adds to the feel of the play, four gentlemen relaxing and shutting themselves away in a sumptuous house to understand the world in which they live in. The costumes as well were dazzling, in particular the ladies during the Muscavites scene, the sparkling jewel encrusted dresses and large statement pieces of jewellery kept catching my eye throughout the scene. Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won compliment each other perfectly and that is down, I think, to the marvellous direction of Christopher Luscombe who has put on the two plays in a beautiful tribute to the centenery of the Great War.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is running at the RST in Stratford upon Avon until 14th March and special encore screenings are taking place in selected cinemas, with a dvd release most likely scheduled for later in the year.