Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 8 October, 2008

Love's Labour's Lost has climbed up the Shakespearean popularity charts in recent years, due in part to Kenneth Branagh's Busby Berkeley-style film version in 2000. However, I remain to be convinced that it is a decent prospect in performance. On the page, it is possible to digest at one's own pace all that dense wordplay and euphuistic rhetoric, and to muse on the intellectually appealing topic that this a play full of linguistic excess whose very subject is the inadequacy of high-flown language in the face of love. (As so often in Shakespeare's love affairs, too, it is the men who prove flighty, the women more clear-sighted.) On stage, however, it needs to be wired up to an external source to go with a sufficient zing.
There is, to be sure, little shortage of zing in Gregory Doran's production. He takes full advantage of the opportunities for song and dance, and sustains the levity through some set-pieces which are too protracted to be kept afloat by their jokes alone. David Tennant's presence in the cast certainly puts non-standard RSC bums on seats; it also demonstrates to those who sniffed about his casting as Hamlet that, far from owing the gig to his TV stardom, he has a long and honourable Shakespearean record with the company. He plays Berowne in his natural mild Scottish burr (in fact, as "Beroon") and is also darker-costumed to distinguish him from his three fellows. When the King of Navarre leads his court into a vow of scholastic solitude and celibacy, it is Berowne who foresees that it will not last, but it is also he who is the most lively and enthusiastic suitor when the four nobles fall for a visiting delegation led by the Princess of France. (Tennant is well balanced by Nina Sosanya as his beloved Rosaline, deft casting also in view of the several remarks regarding her "dark beauty".)
In addition to the high comedy of these nobles' love going awry, Shakespeare pokes fun at pseudo-academic and bombastic speech in the respective persons of Holofernes the pedant and Don Armado the, er, Spaniard. Oliver Ford Davies is fine casting as the precisian Holofernes, nicely complementing his role as Polonius in Hamlet, and Joe Dixon is one of the most skilled Shakespearean comics currently on the books. His Armado gets a lot of mileage out of bawdy mispronunciations, which may grow stale but is probably not unfaithful to original practice. (Don Armado is frequently bested in banter by his boy page Moth, played with just the right amount of precocity by Zoë Thorne.) Mariah Gale leads the female French delegation with dignity even in playfulness.
As this production completes Gregory Doran's RSC ensemble this season, one can spot threads running through the casting of this play, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The quartet of young lovers from the Dream make up half the romantic octet here. Mark Hadfield enjoys a trio of comic roles as Puck, the Gravedigger and now as the French ladies' mischievous chamberlain Boyet. Even the relatively minor roles of Flute, the Player Queen and now one of the company of mummers who open the second half show a cheeky continuity, in that each role requires actor Ryan Gage to cross-dress. Was this motif his idea or Doran's prank, one wonders?
So, a good production capping off a fine clutch of shows. Nevertheless, the play itself feels out of kilter, as if Shakespeare were too intent on parodying other writers and forms to remember to keep his own voice audible underneath it all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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