Review of Love’s Labour’s Lost
One of the delights of Shakespeare is to find the human playwright behind the carapace of unimpeachable reverence that often greets the newcomer to the bard. Hence, the effortless brilliance of his timeless mid-career plays are sometimes bookended by early pieces that find a young wordsmith seemingly too eager to impress with either dizzying wordplay or lacking the assured maturity for nuanced character development.
Puns, Pastiches and Poetry Fit for a Contemporary Audience
In contrast, the late plays sometimes see Shakespeare resemble a retired rock star making a series of unwise come-backs with lazy collaborations with lesser talents. The comparative rarity, then, of Love’s Labour’s Lost to be staged – together with its early placing in the canon – suggests a play that is the result of master-craftsmanship on the cusp rather than being its finished product. The challenge, therefore, has always been to bring the play’s recondite sophistications – what with its Elizabethan puns, pastiches of contemporary poetic forms and the play’s sheer linguistic weight – to a winning accessibility for the modern audience.
A Dash of Downton Abbey Meets Oxbridge College
How delightful, then, to find Christopher Luscombe has one eye firmly on Downton Abbey as he sets his Haymarket production in the “golden afternoon” of England’s Edwardian gentility. The curtain rises to transport us to a seigneurial retreat – part Oxbridge College, part English Country House – of the King of Navarre. The king and his three lordly chums: Berowne, Dumaine and Longaville, are all taking an oath to exchange the courtly pleasures of women and food for a three year sabbatical of ascetic academic contemplation in a bid to win fame. Our foursome’s aims, however, are almost immediately compromised by the arrival on diplomatic business of the Princess of France and her court including her ladies in waiting. At a stroke, then, we have the making of a charming sex comedy, framed within a conceit that invites the puncturing of academia’s pretentions and worthiness.
Love Amid the Rooftops
Thus the arriving French ladies are requested by the King to make camp outside his palace and to conduct their diplomatic business at arms’ length. Yet upon sight of the ladies, all hope of academic retreat and associated oaths are blithely thrown away in favour of four burgeoning romances. In a wonderful scene atop a roof one night, each man spies the other secretly declaring their love for his chosen lady. Edward Bennett’s Berowne – so reluctant at the outset to take the oath of abstinence – is all too eager now to proclaim that true wisdom is arrived at through romantic love rather than learning. Bennett successfully brings out the greater maturity and worldliness of Berowne. Of the foursome, his is the greater sophistication in verse and his the sole scepticism when exchanging earthly pleasures for academic study. Taking centre stage on the roof, his enthusiasm is the greatest when declaring for Lisa Dillon’s elegant Rosaline and thus eagerly grasping his escape from romantic abstinence.
Loves Makes Romantic Fools of Men
Thus are the four’s attempts at academic exile quickly ruined by romantic temptation. Seeing that love has made fools of the men, the four ladies make mischief against them by disguising themselves to cause each man to woo the wrong lady.
The rest of Navarre’s court is an “upstairs, downstairs” gallery of class stratification and intrigue between the classes. Hence, John Hodgkinson’s Don Armado is a Spanish gentleman of glorious and heaving Wildean preciousness seemingly exiled in Navarre’s Basque country – yet not quite precious enough not to have got Emma Manton’s peasant girl Jacquenetta pregnant. There is little of the “Spanish” in Hodgkinson characterisation but rather much more of a Victorian gentleman of leisure – albeit one with literary pretentions, hypocracies and general eccentricities; the parody of the courtly lover.
Upstairs Downstairs Airs and Pretensions
Nick Haverson’s Costard is a yokel who also has had a fling with Jacquetta but as he resides “downstairs” he cannot escape the censure that the “upstairs”-dwelling Don Armado can. Elsewhere, the curate, Sir Nathaniel and schoolmaster Holofernes, carry forth with the court’s academic airs and look down their self-consciously learned noses at Dull the constable – who’s lack of pretension quickly prick their’s.
The pleasant and occasional musical score always compliments and never distracts from the scenes and provides a Gilbert & Sullivan sheen to the proceedings. The play’s sunny tone, however, is abruptly brought to an end by death: both actual and portentous. The Princess’ father is dead, she is now Queen and the French party therefore must return to France. This production was originally staged in 2014 – the anniversary of the start of the Great War – and Christopher Luscombe’s ending sees the foursome march off to active service to fulfill the ladies’ parting request to wait a year before their love can be realised. The foursome’s somber expressions hint at the future horrors of Paschendale and the Somme and contrast with their earlier Woodehousian undergraduate japery. The clouds have suddenly closed over England’s golden afternoon and darkening reality has now intruded.
Romance, Wit and Charm
Love’s Labour’s Lost could be read as a chippy send-up of all things pompously academic and “worthy” by a University-of-life-educated playwright from the provinces. But ultimately this crown-pleasing Haymarket production delights by bringing out the play’s warm heart-beats of romance, wit and charm.
Loves Labours Lost at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London stars: Edward Bennett, Lisa Dillon, Paige Carter, Lea Whitaker, Rebecca Collingwood, Steven Pacey, Chris McCalphy , Peter McGovern, John Arthur, Sam Alexander and Emma Manton. The Director is Christopher Luscombe for The Royal Shakespeare Company
Press Images courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Photographer Manuel Harlan. Copyright 2017. No reproduction without permission.
Love’s Labours’ Lost (and companion piece, Much Ado About Nothing) are currently playing at the Haymarket Theatre in London until 18 March.
To Book Tickets visit – Theatre Royal Haymarket – Loves Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing
Or Theatre Tickets Direct – Loves Labours Lost