Where Christopher Luscombe’s Love’s Labour’s Lost was a pleasant surprise, its self-parodic wit trumping the pull towards nostalgia and self-indulgence that the period setting might have implied, Love’s Labour’s Won had the opposite effect on me. Here, a series of uncomfortable decisions underwritten by unpleasant assumptions marred a production that had a great deal of potential (particularly in two wonderful lead performances) but squandered too much of its goodwill. While I suspect the stronger aspects of the production will resonate for a long time – particularly the darker edges of Michelle Terry’s Beatrice – much of the direction deadened the live performance for me.
My key issues involved the attempt to explicate characters’ individual traits through the experience of war. Unlike many scholars, I’m perfectly happy to accept the RSC’s experiment in calling this play Love’s Labour’s Won. While it is ridiculous to suggest it is a direct sequel, the pairing of the two plays draws attention to the fact that these two plays sit on either side of a war, and might be considered thematic partners or responses to one another – it is hard to deny that the labour of love does win out in Much Ado. Yet the post-war setting led to the crass decision to diagnose the less ‘normal’ characters with disability. Sam Alexander’s Don John had been crippled in conflict, and his melancholy was imagined to from his injury and reliance on crutches, while Nick Haverson’s malapropisms and inconsistencies as Dogberry were treated as the effects of shell shock.
Both actors handled their problematic performance of disability with some skill, but I found the tone surrounding Dogberry troubling. For much of the production Dogberry’s tics and mistakes were treated as unequivocally funny, inviting a willing audience to join the general hilarity of his stuttering hesitations and inability to control his volume. Yet later, following his labelling as an ass, Haverson performed a more disturbing and serious portrayal of pain and frustration, crashing about his tiny room unable to compose himself. That much of the audience continued to laugh during this sequence demonstrated, to my mind at least, that the production had handled this insensitively, pathologising difference yet continuing to present it as funny until a specific manipulated moment. The crassness of this choice was especially frustrating as Haverson himself was excellent, capturing an aggressive and phlegmatic Dogberry with great energy and a huge amount of sympathy. The quiet solidarity shown by Roderick Smith’s loyal constable Verges as Dogberry attempted to go about daily business was moving, and I wish the production had committed further to sympathy than to laughing at this figure.
The post-war context informed the overall aesthetic, with the country house of Love’s Labour’s Won converted into a temporary hospital and place of rest for returning soldiers. Michelle Terry’s Beatrice made a great deal of sense in this context, her quick wit a response to a situation in which she had had to take on more leadership and caring responsibility. Wearing trousers where others wore dresses, and reclining comfortably on lounge seats, Terry captured wonderfully a woman who is getting on without men quite unproblematically. Wonderfully, her gulling scene was played entirely straight – no pratfalls or implicit competition with Benedick’s scene, but an honest and emotional realisation that she could choose to participate in a love relationship on her own terms (as contrasted with her awkward anxiety earlier as she clicked in to the seriousness of Don Pedro’s proposal). The only difficulty with Terry’s performance is that her voice was rather too loud in the broadcast mix, flattening her expression to a consistent shoutiness that did her a disservice (and if a character’s performance involves them beating their own chest violently, you really need to find a different place for the microphone).
While Beatrice took on a more serious edge, Edward Bennett offered a typically lively and sardonic Benedick. Even from a cinema viewpoint, Bennett’s easy relationship with the audience was one of the production’s key pleasures, including in a wonderful moment (that Twitter informs me is a regular part of the performance) where the actor appeared to be on the verge of corpsing and took a sip of his brandy while allowing the audience to share in a deliciously live moment. His wheeling on audience members who laughed at his bad verses, and his collusion with them over his changing affections, allowed him to build a disarmingly sweet character, whose affectation of disdain was always transparent. His set pieces were less effective, particularly his appearances in holes in a Christmas tree during the gulling scene, or his (expertly) choreographed performance pratting around behind a curtain. While these moments worked formally, the real delight in Benedick was his seeming ability to be informal.
The spark between Beatrice and Benedick drove the production, first in their fast repartee and mutual exasperation, then subsequently in their more serious coming together. Terry’s performance particularly held to account Tunji Kasim’s Claudio, offering full-throated grief and anger at the end of the chapel scene and, cleverly, showing a clear reluctance to forgive the Count at the play’s conclusion. Their shared enjoyment of play worked well throughout, leading to some of the more persuasive concluding scenes as they wittily continued to lead one another into verbal traps while still openly admitting their love for one another (though this made even more stark for me her eventual silence, an oddly quiet conclusion for such a strong character).
The outstanding performance of the production was Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Hero. Spencer-Longhurst found the character independent and a match in wit for her cousin, clearly taking the lead both in her own betrothal and in the gulling of Beatrice. Yet it was during the aborted wedding that the drama really began. Kasim was a young, petulant and deeply unpleasant Claudio, and Spencer-Longhurst underwent a wonderful transformation in response to his cruelty, first stunned and then gasping for words, but never losing her poise and dignity. Played within a beautiful recreation of a small country chapel, the gravity of Hero’s betrayal has rarely appeared so brutally. Her dignified acceptance of him during the play’s conclusion was complemented by Beatrice’s continuing distrust.
Around the edges, the production had other issues. The reversal of the penultimate two scenes, as also in Joss Whedon’s film of the play, makes absolutely no sense to me, either narratively (why does the frantic messenger reporting the uncovering of the plot not manage to find Beatrice and Benedick until after Claudio has had time to prepare and deliver his public penitence in the chapel?) or tonally (when the scenes are reversed, Beatrice and Benedick’s warmest moment together is followed too quickly by their immediate separation for the trick of the final scene and their sudden renegotiation of love). I was also frustrated, given the specificity of the evoked location, that servant-class characters took on an eclectic range of regional accents (because provincial voice = working class, in an unpleasant RSC trope that I’d hoped we had begun to move away from – why not stick to the Warwickshire setting instead?).
Seeing the two productions in concert offered some nice doubling resonances. David Horovitch as Leonato referred repeatedly to the nine worthies for whom he had written a pageant as Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, while his companion in that play, Thomas Wheatley, here played his brother. John Hodgkinson, meanwhile, brought some of the confidence (and subsequent deflation) that he had demonstrated as Don Armado. Playing Pedro as an older man than his attendants offered a pleasingly unusual tone to the confrontation between Leonato and Pedro, the outrage of the father being matched by the assumed dignity of the prince. Don John was, conversely, a younger man, and the production framed him frustratingly melodramatically, particularly at the end of the first half when the combination of camera and non-diegetic music (intrusive throughout, I felt) served to frame John in the manner of a television cliffhanger.
While this production lacked much of the self-awareness that made Love’s Labour’s Lost a pleasure, the complexity of Beatrice and Benedick left plenty to value here. As a pair, the two productions offered an interesting skewing of the productions around an exaggerated war, with the interruption of love for a moment of foreboding being transformed to the practical and emotional response to love in a world that is only just beginning to be pieced back together. It’s unlikely we’ll see Much Ado as Love’s Labour’s Won again, but it’s an experiment that bore carrying out.