October 18, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/WhatsOn/5725.aspx

Love’s Labour’s Lost is often regarded as a difficult play to stage, and in many cases can be a difficult play to watch. There are many good reasons for its long absence from the British stage, and modern revivals have to tread a fine line between clarity and dumbing down, between humour and the elements of darkness. When successful, it can be great. Unhappily, Gregory Doran’s new production for the RSC represents a failure, albeit not a total one, to balance the elements or find a heart to the play.

A big part of the problem appears to be a fear of the audience not understanding the play’s complex language. Many of the jokes are obscure, antiquated, near-impenetrable to modern audiences. This doesn’t, however, excuse not trying. This production wanted laughs, and went for the quickest and easiest route by adding mountains of extra visual stage business in order to provoke the required response. A key example came early on, as Joe Dixon’s Don Armado clumsily attempted to woo Riann Steele’s Jaquenetta. Rather than trust the text’s quick and amusing exchange, Doran had Jaquenetta bring on a butter-churner, working the pole suggestively with her hands and speeding Armado to a empathic climax. It was funny, but represented the production’s basic lack of faith in the play itself. Obscure verbal joke? Make a rude gesture and the audience will be laughing so hard they won’t even notice. Effectively, the production copped out.

This isn’t to say it didn’t have its redeeming features. The design (set by Francis O’Connor, ‘environment’ by Robert Jones, the latter of which I am guessing refers to the mirrored wall and floor left over from the same ensemble’s Hamlet) was extremely pretty, a large tree with loping branches and stained-glass vertical hanging branches descending from the ceiling, and located the action in a single field, while Tim Mitchell’s lights advanced the production from the dazzling midday of the opening to the gloomy night of the final moments, pale blue beams catching the glass and creating fantastic shadows over the stage. The problem with the set, however, is that it encouraged an end-on viewing of the action that seemed to trick the actors into thinking they were in a proscenium arch theatre rather than on the thrust stage of the Courtyard. An inexcusable majority of the play was performed directly out to the front, while we on the sides were only really played to during Berowne’s soliloquies.

Berowne and the rest of the male lovers were another of the key highlights of the production. David Tennant, in the lead role, was charismatic and surprisingly powerful; in particular, his expert delivery of the speech in IV.iii where he excuses the men breaking their vows was played straight down the line, the flimsy excuses becoming eloquent and convincing as he injected a combination of pleading and urgency into his voice (after the speech, the men were rather more fired up than was perhaps good for them). The famous over-hearing sequence was also well-pitched, reaching only just as far into silliness as could be tolerated (Edward Bennet’s excellent King hiding himself behind some wafer thin glass branches, for example). Dumaine’s final ode borrowed from the Shakespeare Theater Company’s 2006 production in making it a song which his hidden fellows joined in with, but Sam Alexander made it his own, pulling a ukulele out of an enormous book and singing the song beautifully.

The girls were less impressive, simpering and giggly rather than independent, particularly Kathryn Drysdale’s Katherine and Natalie Walter’s Helena who gave performances rather more modern and active than the Renaissance setting required. Nina Sosanya was better as Rosaline, with excellent poise and a quick rapport with Berowne, but failed to balance the wit and sparkle of the men. The performances weren’t bad, but the production failed to give them much personality beyond what was needed to react to the men, while the men had ample space and time to develop and indulge in extra-textual material. Mariah Gale’s Princess, however, was more interesting; her subservience and repeated bowing to Navarre a rare reminder that, in fact, the two are not equal in rank and that Navarre’s subsequent humbling of himself through his bumbling attempts at wooing represents a fascinating and funny reversal of power. Still, the girls overall were under-developed, which also led to a waste of the excellent Mark Hadfield as a snickering Boyet who was particularly smug at his outwitting of Berowne.

The main plot provided most of the interest; the subplots, however, were where the production failed. Most unhappy to watch was the gradual decline of Ricky Champ’s Costard. In his first appearances he was perfectly good and funny, exchanging snappy back-and-forth with the lords and providing a nice comic underscore to the slightly pompous lords. However, the production very quickly ran out of ideas of what to do with him, which was horribly realised in a ‘rap’ version of his "l’envoi" (III.i) which marked the beginning of the end of any intelligent approach to the comedy. Don Armado fared well for most of the play, relying on a comedy Spanish accent and exaggerated mannerisms, but by V.i he was relying on the cheapest of devices to get laughs, to the point of inexplicably pausing on the first syllable of the word "assistance", simply so that the audience could get kicks out of him saying "crave your ass" to Holofernes. Moments such as these were painfully reductive and unnecessary, giving the lie to the intelligence that the production showed elsewhere. Zoe Thorne’s Moth, meanwhile, was artificially spoken and rather annoying; the main laughs came from seeing the tiny Thorne dressed identically to the enormous Dixon.

Oliver Ford Davies struggled with the play’s dullest material as Holofernes, again having to add business to get the laughs (he lusted impotently after Jaquenetta whenever they shared the stage). However, both he and Jim Hooper’s Nathaniel drew some sympathy out of their righteously hurt reactions to the scoffing of the nobles during the play’s final pageant. This was interestingly performed, the Worthies appearing one by one wearing ships or horses underneath them to give the impression of their mode of transport. Interestingly, Costard’s ‘ship’ had a leopard as its figurehead which he drew attention to on the line "I hope I was purrrrfect", at which the entire on-stage cast appeared to corpse, pausing the scene for a moment – I’d be interested to know if this was an adlib or rehearsed, as it was one of the few moments where there was a sense of real warmth on the stage.

The play’s other two internal performances were also well realised. Towards the end of the interval, a group of rustics appeared in the Courtyard’s foyer and performed a song and dance in the bar for the benefit of those still lingering over their drinks, which was an effective and engaging introduction to the second half of the play, even if it had no apparent point. They then relocated to the stage where they gave a very effective song and clog dance routine, after which they promptly left. Other than to establish a rustic mood(?) I couldn’t place a reason for this interlude, but it was one of the few additions that I couldn’t object to. More overblown was the presentation of the male lovers as Russians, for which they appeared in full busby hats and beards and danced a Cossack dance. They then were joined by a bear on a chain which proceeded to dance in formation with the men. The audience loved it, but by this point it was simply one interpolation too many.

The ending, with the thoroughly sober and black-clad Monsieur Marcade interrupting the party, began effectively. The mood was instantly killed and Gale came into her own as the grieving Princess. Yet here, too, the production finally copped out. Even as the lovers parted, they went to talk aside and held hands, coupling off in a manner that hinted far too strongly at their future reconciliation. The return of the rustics and clowns to sing the song of the Owl and Cuckoo, while lanterns were hung behind, saw everyone singing in chorus with an air of unification, and there was no sense of the lovers parting after Armado’s "You that way, we this way". This culminated in the final image, as Berowne and Rosaline remained alone on stage, gazing at each other from a short distance, while another actor flew a puppet owl over the heads of the audience, making a cry that the programme described as "a male answering a female". It may be a difficult ending, but the production seemed to work against the mood of the text, attempting to recover a happier end.

Despite often being amusing, this was a disappointing conclusion to a relatively disappointing RSC season. Flashes of inspiration were thwarted by an overall attempt to simplify and make crude a complicated and lyrical play. More labour needed.

This review was originally written for Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review