Reviewed by James Karas
When the Royal Shakespeare Company puts on a play by Shakespeare you pay attention and get tickets. When the performances are at the beautiful Theatre Royal Haymarket you run. The two comedies playing in repertory are Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won which makes for wonderful symmetry but falls short in veracity. The second play is in fact Much Ado About Nothing but Love’s Labour’s Won does serve as its subtitle.
The Princess (Leah Whitaker) and her ladies in Love’s Labour’s Lost
Love’s Labour’s Lost is a tough play for modern audiences. It relies on ostentatious use of language. Rhyming couplets, wordplay, alliteration and a showing off of Shakespeare’s ability with English are the hallmarks of the play. At one point the aptly named police constable Dull (Chris McCalphy) is told by the schoolmaster Holofernes (Steven Pacey) that he did not speak a word, he replies “Nor understood none neither, sir.”
The plot itself is rather silly. The King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and three of his companions decide to go monastic including having nothing to do with women for three years. Just at that time a French princess (Leah Whitaker) and three of her ladies arrive at the Navarre court. You have guessed the plot already.
Along with the King, the Princess and their retinues we need some other preferably comic characters to add to the merriment. The Spaniard Don Armando (John Hodgkinson) with his fractured pronunciation is there and he will help with things like pronouncing peace like piss. The pedantic Holofernes, the dim gardener Costard (Nick Haverson), the lovely maid Jaquennetta, the hall boy Moth (Peter McGovern) are all there and their names alone suggest comedy and they do provide it.
William Belchambers, Tunji Kasim, Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander. Photo: Alastair Muir
The King’s men, Berowne (Edward Bennett), Longaville (William Belchambers) and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim) get together with the Princess’s ladies, Rosaline (Lisa Dillon), Katharine (Rebecca Collingwood) and Maria (Paige Carter) in high-end mating rituals but there are not enough complications to keep us entertained for two plus hours. The men decide to entertain the ladies by disguising themselves as Russians and putting on exotic dancing. The ladies disguise their identities so that their suitors address the wrong lady.
We need more. Shakespeare provides a show where people put on a show called the Nine Worthies, historical figures are satirized and caricatured to fine comic effect.
In a marvellous stroke, designer Simon Higlett set the play in an Elizabethan stately home. The gorgeous backdrop that we see is the façade of Charlecote Park, country home of the Lucy family. Shakespeare was caught poaching on its extensive grounds and was brought before a magistrate. It may be just a legend but it does make for a great connection between a 21st century production of two of his plays (Much Ado uses the same set) and Shakespeare’s youth.
Director Christopher Luscombe knows the difficulty of staging Love’s Labour’s Lost and making it entirely approachable. And he takes no chances. The episodes with the Russians and the Worthies are turned into raucous musical numbers. Arcane language be damned – Love’s Labour’s Lost can be made hugely enjoyable. It may well be the funniest production of the play you will ever see.
Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare continues in repertory until March 18, 2017 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, England. www.trh.co.uk