The opportunity to see two different productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost in close proximity of each other doesn’t come around very often, yet October has offered this in the shape of Greg Doran’s production for the RSC and Peter Hall’s new production for the Rose Theatre Kingston, which also happens to be that theatre’s first in-house production. The Rose has been waiting for Shakespeare. An exciting hybrid of reconstruction and modern theatre, it combines a single-room space, allowing proximity to the actors, with an apron stage that keeps the audience on one side. This enormous stage, based on the dimensions of the excavated foundations of the original Rose, takes up half of the circular space with the remainder of the floor filled with audience members sitting on cushions. Acoustically and visually it’s a lovely space.
Hall’s production was a world away from Doran’s, particularly in its relative sobriety. A completely bare stage (save for some drapes lowered for the final pageant) focussed all attention on the actors, dressed in beautifully individual Renaissance costume. Hall’s measured approach eschewed silliness for silliness’ sake, playing the text straight and placing entire faith in the words to draw laughs, where Doran’s production seemed scared of the text and relied entirely on added business.
One unfortunate effect of this approach was to render the play rather dull, and this was felt most severely in the four male courtiers. Finbar Lynch’s Berowne was a particular disappointment in this regard. Speaking with a slow drawl that came out of the side of his mouth in a near-sneer, Berowne became disinterested and a bore, never invested in the stage action. There were moments when this approach worked well, particularly in his cynical observations on his fellow lovers and his withering attacks on Boyet, but any energy or sparkle of wit were lost in transmission. The overhearing scene was also disappointing; played entirely straight, with no imagination used in the deployment of the lovers in their various hiding places, it became a dull and dramatically uninteresting scene that made nothing of the situation’s obvious ridiculousness. Thankfully, the appearance of the men as Russians did embrace a bit of silliness, with beards, busbies and suitably funny accents.
What the play lacked in simple humour or visual flair, however, it more than made up elsewhere. Hall is a master of Shakespearean language, and this was one of the most beautifully spoken productions of Shakespeare I’ve ever had the fortune to see. With nothing to distract us from the words, the actors drew out the nuances in the lyrics of the play and turned them to fantastic effect in an evening that demanded attention but richly rewarded it.
The approach to language was probably best exemplified in William Chubb’s phenomenal performance as Holofernes. Played younger than usual, Holofernes was infused with nervous energy and a charmingly bookish desire to entertain. Shaking his finger and feeling his way through the words of his extemporaneous lyrics, his Holofernes achieved the marvellous feat of simultaneously sending up the academically pretentious world Shakespeare mocks and endearing himself to the audience as a very human and recognisable character. He was accompanied by a sycophantic Nathaniel played by Paul Bentall, who gazed in open-mouthed wonder at Holofernes’ ingenuity and egged him on.
Peter Bowles effected another verbal coup as Don Adriano de Armado by forgoing the usual comedy Spanish accent. Bowles instead presented us with a theatrically-minded gallant; self-consciously melodramatic in both voice and gesture, his proclamations of love saw him get down on one knee, place his hand palm-outwards on his head and raise the pitch in his voice as he cried “Oh, oh!” Always on command on stage, he was (like Holofernes) given able support in Kevin Trainor’s wonderful Moth, a camp and slight page. The homosocial bond between the two was brought to the fore, the two frequently embracing in their platonic love for one another. Trainor’s verbal dexterity was fully utilised in his mocking impersonations of both his master and the other men around him, and verbally he ran circles around both master and pedant. The scene in which the comic characters first all came together thus became an absolute joy to watch and listen to; Holofernes and Bowles engaged in one-up-manship in their use of Latin (a friendly competition, both applauding each other’s use) while Moth and Greg Haiste’s lovably roguish Costard (here imagined as good friends and equals, waving to each other childishly as they parted) put arms around each other and laughed at their betters.
The ladies were solid, playing to an older and more serious end of the scale than is perhaps usual. Rachel Pickup’s Princess was particularly strong, proving a good match for Dan Fredenburgh’s awkward King of Navarre. The strength of the girls was in their subtlety; never breaking decorum apart from when alone with Boyet and Costard, their side glances and giggles to each other as the Princess mocked the King gave them a sense of unity and companionship. However, with the boys also playing things down, the scenes between the two sets of lovers never sparkled as much as they might, and it was always a relief when the comic characters appeared again. The main dramatic problem this led to is that Mercade’s ominous arrival at the end of the play didn’t have anywhere neary as much impact as usual. While it interrupted the momentary silliness of the group as they tossed around Armado’s favour, the grief and sobriety which followed didn’t offer enough contrast to what had come before.
The final pageant of the Worthies, again played fairly straight with simple costumes (apart from Moth’s oversized snake, which he amusingly pinioned in a series of wrestling moves), was pleasingly entertaining and saw the male lovers come into their own as they mocked the actors with a quick wit, leaving Holofernes physically reeling as the onslaught came from different directions (Michael Mears’ Boyet was another good combatant in the verbal sparring). The dismissal of Holofernes, and his condemnation of the lords as “not gentle”, in contrast, was perhaps the most moving moment of the play as he trudged to the back of the stage, utterly deflated.
This production perhaps didn’t offer much for a casual audience, demanding a great deal in terms of listening, but was academically fascinating for the clarity with which it presented obscure verbal tics and jokes in an accessible and genuinely entertaining way. If nothing else, this production stands as proof that Love’s Labour’s Lost can be extremely funny on its own terms, and with a bit more energy and sparkle this could be a truly great revival.
This review originally appeared at the Shakespeare Revue.