The latest instalment of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s journey through the Shakespeare canon is one I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. Christopher Luscombe directs Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing – renamed Love’s Labour’s Won on the back of a theory that argues this “lost” play of Shakespeare’s is actually an alternative title for the Beatrice and Benedick comedy. It’s a plausible theory, as far as my limited knowledge suggests, and even if it’s nonsense it’s still a good excuse to pair these two plays and explore their similarities.
In a wonderful move, the plays have been set in the same world, an early 20th-century English country house. The set, designed by Simon Higlett and inspired by Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, is the same for both, and marking the centenary of the start of the First World War, Love’s Labour’s Lost is set in the golden Edwardian summer of 1914, and Love’s Labour’s Won in the aftermath of the war in 1918. I saw both plays on the same day at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon – something I would definitely recommend if you can manage it, as it really helps you to see the parallels between the two plays.
Anyhow, on to my review. Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed works: in fact I had only ever seen one production of it before (an amateur production at the Putney Arts Theatre which I really enjoyed). So this was my first professional production, but I struggle to imagine a better.
The plot of the play is a perfect comedic set-up: at the Court of Navarre, the King and his three companions make a pact to forswear the company of women for three years, before the appearance of the Princess of Aquitaine and her train throws a spanner in the works. Slowly, the King and his friends Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine admit that they have all fallen in love with one of the ladies.
This is one of the funniest Shakespeare plays I have seen, with several inspired moments: the appearance of the “Russians” and their Cossack dance to name just one. The scene on the rooftop in which the friends discover each others’ secrets, which made me think of an Enid Blyton boarding school, is a joy from start to finish, as they hide behind chimneys and crouch behind walls to overhear one another – Dumaine’s teddy bear nearly steals the show.
The RSC have assembled a wonderful cast for these plays. In LLL, the King of Navarre is portrayed by Sam Alexander, with Edward Bennett as the most rebellious and questioning of his friends, Berowne. William Belchambers and Tunji Kasim complete the quartet as Longaville and Dumaine, while the Princess of France and her ladies Rosaline, Katherine and Maria are endowed with wit and a sense of mischief by Leah Whitaker, Michelle Terry, Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Frances McNamee. The subplot involving Don Armado, Costard and Jacquenetta is beautifully delivered by John Hodgkinson, Nick Haverson and Emma Manton. The music by Nigel Hess complements the setting perfectly. I often don’t notice and rarely comment upon the music in plays, but this is an exception.
The unconventional ending of LLL lends itself perfectly to the play’s setting of an idyllic summer brought to a halt by the outbreak of war. As the news of her father’s death is brought to the Princess of France, the King of Navarre and his companions head off stage to return, marching, in army uniform. It’s an ominous ending that works extremely well: marriages are delayed and the men are forced to follow their original plan of self-denial, unaware that their happiness will be postponed – as it was in real life – by far longer than a year. All in all, a superb production.