Back to the Gulbenkian Cinema in Canterbury recently for the latest live broadcast from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. This time it was to see Love’s Labours Lost, directed by Chris Luscombe. Paul Kincaid and I saw a production of this years ago, with Kenneth Branagh as the King of Navarre and Roger Rees as Berowne. We liked it a lot more than the Hamlet in that same season, with Rees as Hamlet and Branagh as Laertes (though Branagh was outstanding).
This time the production is being presented in tandem with Much Ado About Nothing, rechristened Love’s Labours Won, because there is some idea that Much Ado might have been called this, or subtitled this, or something – Luscombe was a little vague on the subject when interviewed. Mostly, I think it just provides a convenient excuse to bracket together two plays in which a very articulate man spars with a very articulate woman, and they finally marry. Probably. In particular, I think Luscombe is working backwards from the fact that Much Ado is set in the aftermath of a war, thus allowing him to set Love’s Labours Lost during the long Edwardian afternoon, just before the outbreak of World War One. This creates an awkwardness in the production that I’ll come to later.
As is usual with a live relay, there was an introductory film before the play began. I still don’t understand why both the RSC and the RNT think this is necessary, given that the actual theatre audience is allowed to do its own thing, but of the two, I still feel the RSC handles it better, mostly avoiding patronising the audience. Except this time, for reasons that elude me, they seemed to be terribly, terribly anxious to reassure the relay audience in case they found the language too difficult to get into immediately. (I guess we assume the theatre audience isn’t going to have such problems.) So, several actors queued up, one after another, to explain to us how to cope with listening to actual Shakespearian English. Apparently, we just let it wash over us and after a few minutes we’ll get the hang of it. So there you have it: protip from real actors.
I genuinely have no idea why they were so anxious. Yes, there are words that aren’t in common use at present (a costard is an apple, and also means head, so there is a play on words that might just sail past a contemporary audience), but it really doesn’t matter. I’m fairly sure everyone got most of the jokes, as they did seem to laugh a lot. Perhaps it is that as the play is in part about the ‘sweet smoke of rhetoric’, the distraction that words can offer, someone was worried that the point would be lost, but people have been happily performing Shakespeare in various versions for umpteen years without an artistic crisis ensuing, and I saw no sign of it in the theatre or the cinema.
Having said all that, there was a certain awkwardness about the play’s first scene, as the King (Sam Alexander), Berowne (the mesmerising Edward Bennett), Longaville (William Belchambers) and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim) swear their earnest and absurd oath to spend three years away from the society of women, immersing themselves in study. Also, all women must be kept at a mile’s remove from their court, just in case. Berowne, who is the most grounded in the everyday world, is rightly very sceptical about all this, but is finally persuaded to swear the oath anyway.
I still don’t know quite what it was that didn’t gel for me in this scene, though I wonder if it was the setting, the Edwardian country house, which didn’t quite lend itself to young men making ridiculous promises about pursuing a scholarly life. Or, simply, that the boring oath bit has to be got out of the way before the characters start having fun. Or possibly, the ensemble isn’t entirely comfortable with the formality of this scene. It is noticeable later, in the rooftop confession scene, as each admits to being in love, that they worked so much better as a group. It was, though, a fleeting thing. By the next scene the production was in full swing, and after that it was a real delight, right to the very last scene.
The first casualty of the King’s insistence that women keep their distance is Costard, the jester, who is caught talking to Jaquenetta (Emma Manton), a serving maid. For reasons that we presume make sense to the King if no one else, he is delivered into the care of Don Armado, a Spanish gentleman resident at the court, who is also attracted to Jaquenetta’s charms. Don Armado’s brilliant idea is to have Costard deliver a letter to Jaquenetta on his behalf. Clearly this cannot end well.
Meanwhile, an embassy arrives from the King of France and, would you believe it, he has sent the French princess (Leah Whitaker) as his ambassador, along with her ladies-in-waiting. Such larks. What is the King of Navarre to do about all this? This is, of course, precisely the kind of problem that Berowne originally raised before signing the oath himself. It makes the observer wonder what kind of king Navarre actually is that he can so easily decide to seclude himself and his followers, without any apparent regard to the necessity of dealing with matters of state.
All this suggests that Navarre and his followers, with the possible exception of Berowne, have lived rather sheltered lives. The Edwardian setting underlines that sense of going from boarding school to college to a sheltered and privileged existence within the court, without any need to pay much attention to the outside world. The Edwardian setting also hints, perhaps a little heavy-handedly, at what is to come, as their collective innocence is shattered by the events of the war. But for now, we watch them one by one fall in love with the Princess and her ladies. Berowne is first, falling for the Princess’s chief lady-in-waiting, Rosaline (Michelle Terry), his outspoken female equivalent. As the story unfolds, of all the relationships that develop, one feels this is the one that might last. They are both well-educated, sharp-witted, alive to the broader world, and their sparring is that of two people testing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
One has the sense, though, that the Princess of France is rather cleverer and better educated than Navarre. She understands the demands of life at court, she understands the power she has and how to use it. She is surrounded by clever, witty people, but she also understands that she has the power to cut them off at a moment’s notice if she so desires. Her court is a much more formal affair for all its studied informality. Boyet, her aide-de-camp (Jamie Newall), can go so far, but only so far, and the Princess can insist that the women swap the favours presented to them by the men, in order to deceive them when they visit in disguise. By contrast, Navarre’s court is rather more informal. Don Armado lives at court partly because everyone finds him so amusing (and he is delightfully portrayed by John Hodgkinson), but partly too because Navarre has some idea that they will all benefit from his knowledge, even though his speeches are always wonders of flowery declamation. It is Berowne who several times insists on plain speaking, having recognised that flowery language will only take you so far. And it is the women who complain about the length of the men’s love letters.
Of Navarre’s own court, we see Moth, the footman and confidant of Don Armado (played by Peter McGovern, who sings as beautifully as he acts), Dull the Constable (an understated comic turn by Chris McCalphy, who has an exquisite little dance of his own when no one is looking), David Horovitch as Holofernes (lots of amusing grammar jokes as befits a schoolmaster) and Timothy Wheatley as Sir Nathaniel, the priest. It feels like it has always been a court of old men and young men, with women in subsidiary roles as servants ( apart from Jaquenetta, there are assorted kitchen and parlour maids who appear as required, and despite the ban on women). Also, there is Costard the fool, here acting as the gardener, in a delicious performance by Nick Haverson, especially as he ponders the comparative worth of an emolument and a remuneration.
The rest of the story is a little messy. Berowne, the first to acknowledge that he has fallen in love, sends a letter to Rosaline via Costard – who, apparently being illiterate (though I wonder, given that he is the fool, and it is tempting to read this as a deliberate act) gives the wrong letters to the wrong people, thus leading to merry confusion, increased by the fact that of course Jaquenetta is also illiterate so has to have someone else read her letter to her. And of course, it turns out that the other friends are also in love. Luscombe sets the scene of this revelation on the roof, where each man has gone to be alone while he ponders his circumstances. Thus we have them all hiding behind chimneys and pillars as each successive person appears. It’s a lovely piece of farce, and I think the moment where, to them at least, the emotion becomes real.
But there are also lots of jolly japes. Luscombe determined that his production should have lots of music, so the music director, Nigel Hess, has created lots of musical interludes, many of them including Moth, singing about love’s distractions. The Masque of the Nine Worthies is quite stunning, with its cast of servants as a corps de ballet, waving kitchen implements around. Having said that, possibly the best set-piece is when the lovers visit the Princess’s camp disguised as Muscovites, and sing and dance. It begins to feel like we’ve slid into country-house am-dram or an end-of-the-pier show. It’s all huge fun and very entertaining.
But then we get to the point where the Princess learns that her father is dead, and that she is now Queen and must return home. This is the point at which responsibility intrudes once again. It’s been a pleasant interlude but there is work to be done. Except, of course, that the King of Navarre and his friends are stuck with the absurd oath they swore and which they have done nothing but foreswear during the course of the play. As the now Queen of France points out, how on earth can she and her ladies expect to accept their marriage pledges when they don’t seem able to keep their word about anything else. In turn each lady lays conditions on returning their love, all of them contingent on the men keeping an oath for a year and a day. Of the four, it is Rosaline who sets the most complex task, asking Berowne not to cloister himself but to go out into the world, to speak to people, using his verbal dexterity to make the dying happy. It’s an odd request, but one he nonetheless undertakes to carry out.
And here, at last, is my one genuine niggle with the production. Although within the play the friends agree to carry out their oaths and remain genuinely cloistered for a year, within this production it suddenly becomes a matter of going off to war (because of course, Edwardian setting, World War One pending, the beauteous youth of England about to go to its slaughter in the fields of France). While the final stages of the plot are unravelling the foursome suddenly turn up in military uniform, take their leave and march off to war, leaving the rest of the company to sing with patriotic fervour.
And it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever (especially not when you consider just how many of those footmen, gardeners and other male servants will also go off to war and not come back – World War One brought about massive social changes). And that’s the problem with this production. It’s been entertaining, and it looked lovely but now historical events are ineptly co-opted to make a specious point and set up the next production. We have no sense that the young and beautiful Moth will probably die in the barbed wire as he goes over the top, or that Dumaine and Longafield may be horribly maimed, or shell-shocked, or that Costard may heroically save his master’s life though get a lesser medal as a result because he was not a commissioned officer. Don Armado will have one of those odd wars in which he probably spies for whoever is willing to take him on. Berowne is the one most likely to come back (if only to be Benedict in the next production, as unsurprisingly the same actor does) but he will be much changed as a result. I can see what Luscombe is getting at but it’s like tapping a crystal glass for attention with a sword rather than a knife, and accidentally slicing off the thing you’ve created.
But that apart, I thoroughly enjoyed the production, and am particularly looking forward to seeing what Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry make of Much Ado About Nothing, which I’m seeing next month.