Another rip-roaring success at the RSC: although the rip comes markedly between the two halves of Christopher Luscombe’s imaginative production of Love’s Labour’s Lost – the first, a tour de force of wit, romance, banter, intimacy, and fantastical, breathtaking scene changes; the second, alternating farce with roaring songs of music hall variety, fading, until – as Hamlet says – “the rest is silence”; the characters (but not their players) are spent; and love’s labour is well and truly shredded by what artistic director Greg Doran has described as “the shadow of war”.
The first half is also better paced, I feel; and it will be interesting to return, later in the run, to see if the second then flows more smoothly, tightly, evenly. [It does: and therefore completes the play perfectly… – and a little quicker!] Consisting solely of Act 5, it is an extended diminuendo into that “silence” (but not peace…) – echoed in the simpler staging – and therefore pitch, tempo, and intensity (of sound and emotion), become very difficult to sustain and control.
Set on the eve of World War I, in an astonishingly reimagined yet faithful Charlecote Park – courtesy of Simon Higlett (whose initials grace the main doorway and fireplace, along with Christopher Luscombe’s) and the miraculous RSC scenic workshop staff – the atmosphere, and the feel of this production – as well as the superb costumes, recreated period music (composed by Nigel Hess), mannerisms – are utterly consistent in their prelapsarian feel: with hints of the frothiness of the Twenties to come; but also of the horrors the world had to suffer to get there.
As just about always, with the RSC, the cast are uniformly excellent: obviously revelling in each other’s companionship – although I have to express slight reservations about Leah Whitaker’s Princess. Maybe it is the rôle of royalty to have to demonstrate more measured behaviour: but she seemed a lot less involved in the frivolities than her companions – and even I would have fallen for Sam Alexander’s cheeky charms (and bad poetry) as an almost Ian Hislop-like King…! – and she only really comes to life, ironically, when hearing of her father’s death; and then bidding her suitor “stay until the twelve celestial signs Have brought about the annual reckoning” before he may repeat his devout declaration of love.
Edward Bennett, as the witty – and occasionally flustered – Berowne rules supreme, though: making the most of the late Ian Richardson’s “favourite character in Shakespeare” – an actor’s dream of a part. His verbal jousting – although sometimes cruel, or perhaps thoughtless; beaten back, though, by Michelle Terry’s giving-as-good-as-she-gets Rosaline… – nearly always helps him, and his friends, escape from the sticky spots they put themselves in; and he ends up coming out on top (literally, in the roof scene, that ends Act 4 – surely where Dick Van Dyke should have made a guest appearance?!) for much of the time. It is easy to understand his well-earned popularity.
Special mention should also go to Tunji Kasim, as Dumaine (and a wonderfully mature Claudio in Love’s Labour’s Won…). A superb Edmund in David Farr’s 2010 production of King Lear at the Courtyard, I have a feeling he – and his teddy bear – will go very far indeed. Additionally, Nick Haverson’s Costard is a manic delight; as is Peter McGovern’s Moth; and Jamie Newall’s sardonic, laconic Boyet struggles not to steal every scene he is in.
In a play where language rules – the plot is thinner than the four friends’ disguise as “Muscovites or Russians”: drawing “out the thread of [Shakespeare’s] verbosity finer than the staple of his argument” – the production, somehow (especially in part one), keeps you gripped: only occasionally taking deep breaths, slowing the pace, before plunging headlong back into the action.
It will be fascinating to see, therefore, in a few days time, what the same company and creative team makes of Love’s Labour’s Won – in truth, Much Ado About Nothing – this time set after the war.