August 19, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Love’s Labour’s Lost (Shakespeare Theatre Company) @ The Swan Theatre

I always try to read a selection of professional reviews of the shows I’ve seen- partly for interest, partly because they sometimes bring to light things I hadn’t noticed and partly because they sometimes give a good platform for argument. One of the most respected of these critics is Michael Billington, the Guardian theatre critic, who I went to a workshop with last year. He’s the one who reviews all of the RSC’s show, and by and large I like his reviews- he’s normally fair without letting preconceptions carry him away, and he also backed me up in appreciating the German ‘Othello’.

This time though, Michael, you’re just plain wrong.

This was a very funny and vibrant ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost, presented by Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company. Full of energy, music, a lot of laughter and an intelligible reading of a very wordy play, I thought it was great, even from the heights of Gallery 2.

Billington’s problem stemmed from the setting of the play, easily the most radical thing director Michael Kahn had done. He saw it as taking place in 60’s India, with the King of Navarre being reimagined as an Indian guru and the three male courtiers as a rock band (like the Beatles) attracted to him to rediscover their spiritual side. The French princess and her ladies became jumpsuit-wearing, moped-riding Charlie’s Angels lookalikes, and Costard, wonderfully performed by Michael Milligan, wore a CND shirt and hippy beard and cried, “Police brutality, we’ve gotta fight the fascists, man!”

Billington reckoned that this resetting of the play, “doesn’t hold water for two minutes”, which I thoroughly disagreed with. The sassiness of the French women made sense in an era of female empowerment, and the treatment of the Indian Dull as stupid by the very white and fat Holofernes and Nathaniel lent an interesting colonial aspect to the play.

Elsewhere, the men’s disguise as Russian cosmonauts, entering to ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ was a comic highlight, and the long reading of the poems as rock songs in Act One got better and better- as first Berowne strummed a couple of chords, then Navarre brought in a sitar player, Longaville an entire drum kit and recorded instrumental section, and finally Dumaine entered with his acoustic guitar and was accompanied in his song by the other concealed members of the band (yet another moment which Billington criticised, apparently for its lack of realism- I think he missed the point that it was absolutely hysterical!).

My only gripe was the slightly clumsy handling of Marcade’s impact on the play- always a difficult moment to stage, as effectively a character enters at the height of the comedy and completely deadens the mood for the rest of the play. Here, though, it didn’t have quite the dramatic impact it needed, and the musical finale was a bit damp- all lending for a suitably subdued ending, but not as satisfactory as it could have been. Any production of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ has to really think about this moment, as a mishandling can ruin the entire play- how do you stage an anticlimax without it actually being one?!

But, when I think about this production, I will remember Costard singing, “You say you want remuneration…..” (ie ‘Revolution’ for any non-Beatles fans), Don Armado’s antics with his springy cane, the wonderful music and Holofernes bringing in a placard at the start of the masque proclaiming it to be by, “Harold Holofernes, author of Shakespeare Loves Me”. Colourful, energetic, very funny and thoroughly entertaining, Kahn’s conceit worked for me and for the audience- and I stand defiant to the critics.

Posted in Theatre review