Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known comedies, but after last night’s sparkling performance, streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, it is difficult to see why. The play is witty, romantic, hilarious, and poignant by dizzying turns. The exemplary cast are matched only by the extraordinary set and costumes created by designer Simon Higlett and evocative music composed and led by Nigel Hess. In this play packed with wordplay, madcap antics and tender oaths, not a single moment fell flat, and the final touching reference to the setting of 1914 sent the audience home exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure. Rarely have I seen Shakespeare I could recommend more highly.
The King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) invites three of his friends to study with him cloistered from the world for three years, swearing never to see a woman in that time. Almost immediately after signing, the Princess of France (Leah Whitaker) arrives with her three ladies in waiting and advisor Boyet (Jamie Newall). On seeing them, all four of the men forget their oaths, and begin writing love letters to their chosen women. Most surprising of them is the cynical Berowne (Edward Bennett), who finds himself entranced by the witty and acidic Rosaline (Michelle Terry), much against his better judgement.
And so the farce begins. As in other Shakespearean comedies, there are mistaken identities, comic cameo roles, and a foreigner with an amusing accent (Don Armado of Spain, played flamboyantly by John Hodgkinson). But the production takes all these elements and sets them perfectly against each other. Berowne is the star of the show: his military declamations turning to schoolboyish whines and back again as he bemoans his lovelorn state. Christopher Luscombe, the director, transports Shakespeare’s language into a 1914 setting with perfect ease, reminiscent of Coward and The Importance of being Earnest. The men are hopeless; the women, playful. There is even a ridiculous professor (David Horovitch), a portly policeman (Chris McCalphy), and a well-meaning curate (Thomas Wheatley), playing bowls.
The set design by Simon Higlett is based on Charlcote House, nearby on the river Avon. It begins in a library which recedes backstage carrying the actors with it, to reveal a manicured lawn beneath. The lawn itself is then pierced by an ascending rooftop: low parapets and a central skylight allow the four aristocrats to hide from each other while one by one proclaiming their new loves and trying out their poems. Their successive embarrassments as they confront each other is one of the funniest moments in the show. In all these different settings, Christopher Luscombe makes expert use of the thrust stage, available space and furniture.
Nigel Hess’s music, often pastiching styles of the period, is used to great effect. The singing is led primarily by Don Armado’s page, Moth (Peter McGovern), whose whole performance was a delight to watch. Together with the professor, curate, policeman and servant Costard (Nick Haverson), they present the Nine Furies, a play-within-a-play. Like the rude mechanicals performing Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this is a lovely example of Shakespeare poking fun at the acting profession – the curate forgets his lines, Don Armado gets carried away, and Costard struggles with his costume. This is all underpinned by studiously bad settings of the lyrics to jaunty tunes, calling to mind the music hall or Gilbert & Sullivan.
The women do a fine job of tempering the men’s romance with suspicion and their own pranks. The Princess is refined and clever, Rosaline amusing and quick, and together the four of them run rings around their prospective paramours. When the mood finally turns serious, both Leah Whitaker and Michelle Terry are outstanding. But this isn’t a comedy like the rest – the women refuse to marry, putting off the men for a year and a day, to test their recent love and put affairs in Navarre in order. As Berowne himself comments in a self-referential line: “Our wooing doth not end like an old play; / Jack hath not Jill:” When the King chides him that it only “wants a twelvemonth and a day”, he replies ruefully, “That’s too long for a play”, as though aware that their love can only last as long as an audience is watching.
Unusually, this production is being paired with Much Ado About Nothing, here titled Love’s Labour’s Won, with director, designer, music and most of the cast continuing in the second play, set after the war in 1918. In the show’s preamble, Christopher Luscombe explained the theory that Much Ado was originally the subtitle of Love’s Labour’s Won, and that although the characters have different names, many of them map well onto those of Love’s Labour’s Lost. There seems little doubt that Bennett, Terry and the entire cast will pull off a similarly impressive performance in this second play.
Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won are both playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 14th March. The live filmed performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost is being repeated at the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford, on Sunday 15th February. The live performance of Love’s Labour’s Won is being shown at the Phoenix Picturehouse on 4th March and repeated on 8th March.