The pairing of Love’s Labour’s Lost with Much Ado about Nothing in the RSC’s current season has caused no small amount of comment. The controversial retitling of the latter play as Love’s Labour’s Won is a publicity stunt although not without merit – the implication that the two plays are narrative sequels is bunk, but the thematic connection implied by the titles need not be. In practical terms, the two plays share a company and director (Christopher Luscombe) and a very specific setting: Charlecote House, either side of World War I. It’s a rare precise time and place for a set of productions, and a big part of the marketing strategy for the productions.
The setting deeply concerned me. On a personal level I veer between disinterested in and disturbed by the fetishisation of this period, made popular recently by Downton Abbey and its ilk, for the inevitable nostalgic heroisation of a deeply problematic period, its glorification of the nationalism surrounding the wars, and the saturation of an upper-class privilege that still seems to stand as a kind of idealised Englishness. At its best, it is a period that does nothing for me, and my concern for this production was that it would simply buy into what feels to me like a fad made timely by a centenary year. I admit my own prejudice here, but I gain no pleasure from watching the privileged Edwardian classes lark about.
Thankfully, this was not a celebration of the period through Shakespeare’s play, but a celebration of Love’s Labour’s Lost via gentle pastiche of the period. The light satire of the period emerged in the portrayal of the lords as suffering from an arrested development, sequestered in their lush drawing rooms and libraries and oblivious to real-world concerns. Tunji Kasim epitomised this as Dumaine, giggling in glee at the plan of the little academe, and clutching a teddy bear at night that became the focus of a running series of jokes as the addressee of Dumaine’s poetry, a ghost manipulated by the hidden Navarre, and the victim of Berowne’s cruel threatening of his companions, he hanging the teddy over a ledge to the shrieks of Dumaine. The men were lovable oafs, constantly made foolish and upstaged by the lower classes.
Key among these was Nick Haverson’s Costard, here a gardener. Costard had the privilege of being outside the fantastical musing of his betters, epitomised hilariously as he searched for the source of the non-diegetic music accompanying Armado and Berowne’s lovelorn effusions. Bedraggled and lively, puncturing pomposity at every turn, Haverson stole his every scene and acted as the corrective to impractical musings, often accompanied by Emma Manton’s sly and jolly Jaquenetta. The four-way overhearing scene was played in a confined space atop a turret, open to the stars, and the riotous interruption of the lovers by Costard and Jaquenetta punctuated the men’s aspirations.
Costard’s self-awareness was part of a broader setting up of the play as musical, with every character given a moment or set piece. Chris McCalphy’s Dull was a slow-spoken country constable who drew the biggest laugh of the evening as he bathetically commented that he hadn’t understood a word; but his offer of a dance, rejected by Holofernes, was followed by a lovely grace note as, alone on stage, he offered the openings of a ballet, momentarily coming to physical life. Thomas Wheatley’s Nathaniel, during the pageant of the Worthies, had a wonderfully poignant moment as he broke down following his loss of memory, before storming through an accurate reading of his lines. David Horovitch perfectly captured Holofernes as a chortling, self-congratulatory schoolmaster. And the Worthies were portrayed in a lovely combination of farcical amateurism and polished song routines, supported by a chorus of butlers and housemaids.
In musical terms, however, it was Peter McGovern’s Moth and John Hodgkinson’s Don Armado who stole the show. Armado, with hilariously exaggerated Spanish accent, threw himself repeatedly into melancholic posture, reclining on a couch with hand to head, often at explicit prompting from Moth, who served him as a robotically happy manservant. McGovern’s performance was uncanny and slightly inhuman in his fixed smile and eagerness to please, but in a wonderful early scene he offered a song that built to an extraordinary virtuoso performance sung to a cushion while Armado thrashed out a symphonic accompaniment on a piano. Armado’s larger-than-life persona was balanced perfectly by the diminutive Moth, leading to a wonderful poignant moment as they put their arms around one another during the pageant.
Moth also led the hysterical Russian sequence, a fully choreographed routine incorporating song, Cossack dancing and lavish beards, while Moth and Costard accompanied the unfortunate lovers. The reading of such moments as musical set pieces exaggerated their foolishness but also allowed the male lovers to contrast comically with the dignified yet vivacious French ladies. Luscombe’s skill was in placing the men in a physically dynamic and therefore exposed mode, while dressing the women in restrictive clothes and umbrellas that anchored them powerfully to a spot, causing the men to prance and ridicule themselves before them. While Michelle Terry’s Rosline took the bulk of the withering replies, I was particularly impressed by Leah Whitaker’s Princess, who offered a fast repartee without ever breaking out of her polite manner.
It was a little bizarre to see Edward Bennett, Sam Alexander and Michelle Terry in Love’s Labour’s Lost, given that the first two were in the last RSC production of the play as well while Terry had played the Queen in the Globe’s productions. Here, the lovers were defined by an easy back-and-forth, finding the musicality in the lines and engaging in a combative dialogue. Alexander’s boyish Navarre was perhaps the most interesting character, torn between being the cause of all ridiculousness and having a stately dignity that could be assumed when needed. But Bennett found a surprising seriousness to Berowne, his chagrin at being caught out turning quickly to a sincerity in his expressions of love. Similarly, while Terry excelled at the acerbic put-down, it was her admission that they had not taken the men seriously that marked the turnaround following Marcade’s entrance. The principle defining the play was one of play itself, yet the company never let slip the important aspect of sincerity that distinguishes this play from more farcical comedies; it is funny because it is meant.
The gentle, twilight melancholy of the play following Marcade’s appearance was fitting, the lovers adopting a still, quiet performance and talking through promises. Poignantly, and far more subtly than I could have expected, the final song was performed by Moth and the company gradually building in volume while the men went offstage, only to return in uniform as soldiers. The closing image of the play, following Armado’s instruction of ‘You that way’, was of the men marching off to war and the rest of the company standing still as a snare drum sounded a distant march. The sense of parting, and of hope mixed with fear, captured perfectly the ambivalent tone of the end of the play, and united the disparate comedians in a moment of shared experience. Despite my reservations, it more than whetted the appetite for Love’s Labour’s Won.