After seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stunning Love’s Labours Lost on screen in Canterbury last month, we went back to the Gulbenkian last night for its ‘companion piece’, Love’s Labours Won, a.k.a Much Ado About Nothing.
After Christopher Luscombe’s rather fumbled attempt last time to explain why the two plays might be – might be – related to one another, last night Gregory Doran was wheeled in to cheerfully explain that he was ‘no scholar’ before trotting out some rather tenuous evidence to suggest that Much Ado was also known as Love’s Labours Won. I was left with the vaguest feeling they were really doing all this so that they could use the hashtags #rsclost and #rscwon, but don’t mind me.
Luscombe did also rather unguardedly comment that the theatre company had asked him to set the two plays in World War I (presumably with a nod to relevant anniversaries). Clearly, he’s been only too delighted to comply, but I do find myself wishing that he had at least decided to attempt to subvert the suggestion somewhat rather than simply setting about it with quite such gusto. As I noted last time, with Love’s Labours Lost, good as it was there was still a sense of it having been forced into its setting, particularly at the end, when the young men, rather than sequestering themselves as the play requires, suddenly all march off to war.
With Much Ado About Nothing (I’m sorry, I cannot call it Love’s Labours Won – it just feels wrong), the WWI setting makes a little more sense in that as the play opens the men are returning from a battle. Thus, in Luscombe’s version, we see them returning to the same country house that was the setting for Love’s Labours Lost, but now converted into a hospital for officers, with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) as a nurse, and his niece, Beatrice (Michelle Terry), as Sister, and Leonato (David Horovitch) himself in uniform, running the place.
As the play is set late in 1918, the country house is getting ready for Christmas, so there are decorations including a Christmas tree, and the emphasis is on getting back to normal and having fun. Claudio (Tunji Kasim) has fallen in love with Hero and appeals to his lord to help him woo and win her. Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson, who played Don Armado last time, but really shone this time round) readily agrees, and the stage is set for a Christmas wedding. Ah, how lovely. Meanwhile, Don Pedro wagers that before the house party is over, he will have ensured that Beatrice and Benedick (Edward Bennett, who played Berowne last time around) fall in love. As we know, they are famously antagonistic towards one another, for reasons that are never quite clear other than that there are hints of a previous love affair. Or, as I sometimes think, maybe they just like arguing with each other.
As Luscombe puts it, this is a play that is filled with examples of odd behaviour. Here, he is referring to Don John (Sam Alexander, formerly the King of Navarre), Don Pedro’s brother, who sets out to discredit Hero and stop the wedding, and to Dogberry (the exceptional Nick Haverson, who played Costard last time). Don John is the only soldier shown as having a visible injury, while Dogberry displays a formidable array of twitches to go with his legendary malapropisms. Luscombe’s contention is that by setting the play at the end of World War I, it’s possible to account for this strange behaviour through the psychological effects of being in the war, and I don’t doubt one can. On the other hand, I do wonder whether this isn’t rather too pat and convenient an explanation. I have a slight sense with both of Luscombe’s productions that, lush as they are, delightful as they are, as filled with music and dancing as they are, they aren’t terribly taxing. Well, maybe Love’s Labours Lost isn’t a terribly taxing play to begin with, but watching Much Ado this time around, I was struck by how dark it is, how really dark and strange. To push that aside with the suggestion that it’s time for fun and, oh, by the way, shellshock, seems a little bit too easy. Having said that, Sam Alexander imbued Don John with a controlled malevolence beyond anything that Luscombe’s conception might have asked for, while Haverson’s Dogberry was distressed, and distressing as he struggled to express himself. (I would love to see Sam Alexander play Iago, based on his Don John.)
I’d forgotten until last night that Much Ado is another of those plays in which the death of a young woman is faked in order to achieve retribution and reconciliation. After Claudio denounces Hero at the altar, she is whisked away by her family, and hidden, but not before Leonato’s speech about the awfulness of daughters. It’s not precisely ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ territory but it struck me for the first time that there is a resonance with certain elements of The Merchant of Venice.
The story comes out, finally, when Borachio (Chris Nayak), Don John’s servant, is overheard boasting about his master’s wickedness, and is ‘comprehended’ by the night watch and brought before Leonato. After Claudio has been suitably contrite at Hero’s tomb, he agrees to marry her cousin as penance, as you do, only to find to his delight that she is Hero. And everyone lives happily after, including Beatrice and Benedick. Except I find myself wondering what that means in their case. The relief of no longer having to put on a front when they are really crazy about each other? Or the struggle of having to really get to know one another after years of verbal sparring? Never mind, double wedding!
As you may have gathered already, I’m a great admirer of both Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry. Their Berowne/Rosaline in Love’s Labours Lost was wonderful, but there was always the danger that in doing Benedick/Beatrice, this would just be a reprise of the earlier roles, but a bit older – which is indeed what Luscombe seemed to be suggesting the roles are. I thought Bennett and Terry did better than that, though. They caught a certain weariness in the two characters (I saw something similar in the Wanamaker/Russell Beale pairing a few years ago, though that relied more on them being chronologically older). Here, you feel sympathy for the two of them, surrounded by people constantly joking or nagging them about not being married, to the point where they give in if only to shut everyone up. They already have a strong if somewhat complicated relationship, if only people would stop butting in, but they won’t.
One can’t help wondering what sort of marriage this is going to be. The familiar theme throughout is that for strong-minded people marriage is a trap of sorts, but eventually even Beatrice and Benedick must succumb. Luscombe would, I’m sure, argue that the setting allows Beatrice to be a New Woman, and thus things will be different (he signals this by frequently showing Beatrice wearing trousers). On the other hand, given Luscombe explained in his interview that women got the vote in 1918 I’m not sure I trust his grip on history (universal suffrage did not occur until 1928 – in 1918, a limited number of women over 30 were given the right to vote, and women won the right to be elected to Parliament, but that is not the same; as an unmarried woman it would be unlikely that Beatrice would have had the right to vote at that point, though marriage might have permitted that).
If Luscombe’s approach to the play generally is a bit broad-brush for my taste, what he does excel at is set-pieces, like the dances, and intricate business. When Benedick is concealed behind the arras, listening to the others discuss Beatrice’s love for him, Bennett performs an extraordinary series of very funny antics, and then does it all over again, hidden behind the Christmas tree on the other side of the room. The scene involving the constables and the interrogation is set in a very crowded kitchen; when the sexton comes to leave, he can’t because he is hemmed in by people, at which point all the characters pick up the chairs and table, revolve through 720 degrees and find themselves right back where they were before. It was clever and funny (though, I have to say, best appreciated by the birds-eye camera shot), and clearly an acknowledgement of something Luscombe said in an earlier interview, that thanks to the wonders of the stage at Stratford, actors would not have to carry furniture on and off with them. Other incidents include Don Pedro’s proposal to Beatrice, which Hodgkinson and Terry turned into a horribly poignant little moment (though, again, best appreciated by the close-up camera – I couldn’t help feeling a lot of this production was framed more for the camera than the audience).
Actually, that is the trouble with these two productions. I keep being left with this nagging feeling that the cast are so much better than the director. (Talking with Paul Kincaid just now, he suggested that Luscombe might be an actors’ director rather than a production’s director, which is a much neater way of saying what I’ve been strugglng towards for the last thousand words.) Luscombe praised the ensemble acting, and rightly so. It’s been a long while since I saw an ensemble that works so well together. Even the so-called minor parts are very rich. I’d love to see what this looked like stripped of all the fripperies, because I suspect it would still work because of the quality of the acting. They are comfortable in their roles but not complacent. And they know how to connect with the audience. Bennett in particular is adept at running with an audience’s response. Last night, someone snorted at Benedick’s awful poetry, and Bennett paused, smiled, turned towards the snorter, and began reading the poem again.
So, splendid performance, but I’m hoping that Doran et al stop fannying around with the companion pieces routine fairly soon. Also, much as I’m looking forward to The Merchant of Venice, Henry V (hoping that Alex Hassell has something to pull out of the bag after his rather lacklustre Prince Hal) and to Hugh Quarshie’s Othello, which I hope and strongly suspect will be a thing of wonder (I’m still scarred by doing Othello for A-level, and by a truly dreadful production starring Ben Kingsley and Niamh Cusack), I’m hoping that they will get beyond the crowd-pleasers and money-pullers before I get too old to drive to Canterbury. I have still never seen Cymbeline, Titus Andronicus, King John and Henry VIII, and would quite like to before I die.