Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames
Opened 28 October, 2008

When casting a comedy Spaniard, your thoughts might not turn at once to that venerable smoothie Peter Bowles. His portrayal of Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost has none of the cartoon-Dago business which enlivens Joe Dixon’s performance in the same role at Stratford-upon-Avon. Instead, Bowles draws chuckles from his very Bowlesiness. This Don Armado is probably a retired Elizabethan colonel, as fluent in his bombastic speech as (in other scenes) William Chubb’s schoolmaster Holofernes is with his Latin pedantry.
As I wrote a few weeks ago in respect of that RSC production, this is a play which is fathoms deep in love with language, even as it demonstrates that language is a poor tool for love. With so many characters taking delight in what they say, it is a work which suits the configuration of the Rose Theatre; small wonder, then, that it marks that venue’s first in-house production. The broad, shallow lozenge of a stage encourages actors to deliver speeches of any size straight out to the audience ranged semi-circular about them. However, when director Peter Hall emphasises the oratory and designer Christopher Woods places the actors on an utterly bare stage, the production inadvertently brings out the paucity of actual narrative. King of Navarre and his courtiers swear off women – oops, enter a female delegation from France – the Navarrese all fall in love – some tricks are played – then, just as we’re all used to the wordy comedy, a messenger announces that the French princess’s father has died and the play ends on a note of wilful irresolution.
Consequently, this is an evening of performances. Bowles works well with Kevin Trainor as his page Moth, who flutters around bettering his master’s wit. Greg Haiste as Costard is the sunniest-natured Shakespearean clown I have seen in ages; Ella Smith, fresh from her success in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, is a Rubenesque Jaquenetta the dairymaid. And, frankly, none of the eight lovers makes much of an impression at all, except to note that the saturnine Finbar Lynch as Berowne, though a fine actor, is few folk’s idea of a “merry madcap”. I have yet to be won over by the play itself, either; to its admirers, I must echo Don Armado’s closing words – “You that way, we this way.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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