Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Review: The RSC's production of Love's Labour's Lost

This Autumn, I have been lucky enough to see the RSC's production of Love's Labour's Lost on two occasions: a fact which, I hope, tells you how much I enjoyed it! As far as we know, this Winter is the first time that Love's Labour's Won (sometimes going by the name of Much Ado About Nothing) and Love's Labour's Lost have ever been performed in conjunction with one another: enough to give any early-modernist mild palpitations! The two productions have gone down an absolute storm, winning 4 and 5 star reviews from all the major newspapers.

The production is set in summer, just prior to the outbreak of World War One, with Love's Labour's Won set on the other side of this unifying concept, just after the end of the war. Given this year's centenary anniversary of the start of the war, this fact in itself is not, perhaps, surprising. What Christopher Luscombe manages to do with this setting, however, was certainly a pleasant surprise! It was one of the best productions by the RSC that I have ever seen (the other two contenders being last year's Titus Andronicus and A Mad World My Masters). The unrelentingly fast-paced witticisms of the play, which have often seen it collecting dust in theatre repertoires, were superbly delivered by all the cast, but particularly so by Edward Bennett's Berone, and Michelle Terry's Rosaline. This is a play whose dialogue requires impeccable timing and delivery, and in no way did the cast disappoint.

Stealing the show at several points, though, was Nick Haverson's Costard. Playing on a dynamic that was certainly reminiscent of Basil and Manuel from Fawlty Towers (it's not as anachronistic as it sounds, I promise!), Costard and Adriano don Armado (John Hodgkinson) produced several of the biggest laughs. This was especially the case during Costard's failure to understand the meaning of 'remuneration' (from Armado's direction to him to deliver his letter to Jacquenetta: 'bear this significant [Gives a letter] to the country maid Jaquenetta: | There is remuneration'). I'm not going to say any more than that, as I don't want to ruin the joke for any of you who might still go and see this production. That said, however, think Manuel's sustained monologue in one episode about  speaking English well because 'I learned it from a booook', and you're on the right lines.

Whilst these various bits of characterization meant, for the first half and for most of the second, that we were in no doubt we were watching a Shakespeare comedy, the final ten minutes or so were incredibly moving. Developing the short masque, or show, performed by the Nine Worthies in the final scenes, Luscombe chose to move the news of the death of the Princess of France's father, and had the herald arrive to deliver the news before this masque had finished.  With an action like a guillotine, this news signalled that the comedy of this production was emphatically over. Never have a seen such a shift in tone handled so well. As the anticipation that war was about to break out grew, the sudden realization that the hedgerow (which had taken centre stage at the back of the set during the outdoor scenes), was scattered with poppies, immediately took on a new poignancy.

During a closing song that was born out of setting part of Berone's sonnet, addressed to Rosaline, to music, this shift from comedy to sombre respect and painful goodbyes was accelerated. As the song, sung by the entire cast, drew to a close, a faint whistle was heard, and the four friends of Berone, Longaville, Holofernes, and Dumaine marched on stage, dressed in full military uniform, and faced the cast. After Don Armado delivered the final lines, 'The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of | Apollo. You that way: we this way', the four departed. Off they went to the war to end all wars, giving their earlier promises of a faithful return to their loved ones in twelve months time a tragically open-ended and uncertain tinge, chillingly reflecting the optimism with which the news of the war was originally met.

This was a truly triumphant production, and one which I would happily go back and watch again and again. Whilst many programmes on television have tried to sensitively pay homage to the centenary anniversary of World War One, this production is by far the best approach I have seen. Proof yet again that the work of the bard really is timeless.

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