Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 23/09/2014 to 14/03/2015
A carefree world – Four young men of noble birth, spared by all menial worries, spend their days training their quick wit and excelling in puns and rhetoric. They plan gaining a better understanding of the world by withdrawing from it.
An oath of asceticism is sworn for 3 years: no pleasures and definitely no women within the castle.
Shortly afterwards, four equally well born ladies make their appearance. Although they are being lodged at a certain distance, threads soon start spinning by themselves.
In this winter season, for the first time, the RSC shows Love’s Labour’s Lost in direct combination with Love’s Labour’s Won, long considered to be one of Shakespeare’s lost plays, nowadays, however, often assumed to be in fact the play Much Ado About Nothing. This tandem production creates a time frame around the days immediately before and after the First World War.
The amazing set, designed by Simon Higlett, transports the audience to the stately manor of Charlecote near Stratford, a place well known to William Shakespeare, as it was here that he was caught poaching.
The King of Navarre, played by Sam Alexander as a man of disarming naivety, is not a person to have the last word, neither with his entourage nor even for himself.
Amongst his three friends, Berowne is the only one seemingly able to use common sense, however, he displays a hilarious lack of emotional intelligence. Edward Bennet owns his character. He makes him an irresistible cynic who virtually calls for a controlling female hand.
Longaville (William Belchambers) and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim), just as the other two, stumble into the pitfalls of their own feelings. The four protagonists create an unbeatable highlight the turret scene, a firework display of comedy in which they make a last attempt at dissembling their enamouredness.
Amongst the ladies, Leah Whitaker represents the Princess of France as a distinctly more mature and self-confident person than her male counterpart.
Michelle Terry, as Rosaline and thus Berowne’s flirt partner, keeps sparks flying while generating magnetism. We are allowed a first glimpse at the traits that will return with Beatrice in the “sequel”, Love’s Labour’s Won.
Katherine (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) and Mary (Frances McNamee), the other two ladies-in-waiting, rob the gentlemen’s senses with ease.
The ladies are accompanied by Lord Boyet, the Princess’s equerry (Jamie Newall, what an extraordinary voice!) and Marcadé (Roderick Smith).
At less gentrified level, too, life is bubbling. Don Armado (John Hodkinson), a Spanish guest, competes with Costard, the gardener (hilariously funny: Nick Haverson) for the dairy maid Jacquenetta’s (Emma Manton, fantastic, a hothouse of energy and wit) favours.
David Horovitch, Thomas Wheatley and Chris McCalphy provide the villagers’ comedy contributions.
As perhaps the only fully sane person of the manor, Moth, the hall boy, Peter McGovern has a smaller part, but in this production he is the one who shapes the musical side by his singing, solo and leading the ensemble’s songs.
Oh the music: Nigel Hess composed a dazzling romantic musical accompaniment to the play, performed live and conducted by John Woolf, underlining and highlighting the atmosphere, a special treat in itself.
Directed by Christopher Luscombe.
A delight not to be missed!
Photos by Manuel Harlan © RSC