Theatre Review by Nick Keith
‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ by William Shakespeare
Chichester Festival Theatre
The luxuriant language of Shakespeare can be a challenge to many modern audiences, especially when actors mumble their lines and a production is leaden-footed. However, his plays are exhilarating when they are delivered cleanly, clearly and cannily. The Royal Shakespeare Company productions of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ at Chichester Festival Theatre are a triumph.
First performed at the RSC in September 2014 and directed by Christopher Luscombe, here are revivals which soar and sing. This is the first time that the two comedies have been put together. ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, an early play, was written in the mid-1590s. It is rarely performed, partly because of its deliberately dense language and often verbose wordplay (in parody of learned men) and its mocking of 16th century court manners. it is coupled with the more familiar comedy ‘Much Ado’, which the RSC has subtitled ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’.
The two plays are set immediately before and after the First World War. The wonderful Edwardian designs by Simon Higlett are based on Charlecote Park near Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was allegedly caught poaching. This house was remodeled in Victorian times.
‘Lost’ opens with the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and three courtiers pledging themselves to three celibate years of learning and culture without seeing any women. The King has forgotten that he is expecting a visit from the Princess of France and her three handmaids. Of course the men throw aside their pledge to scholarship and fall in love with their four French visitors. Each man tries to keep secret his breaking of the oath but they find each other out in a brilliant scene set on the house rooftop.
So they agree to pursue their female quarries. But the Princess and her colleagues confuse their men with guile and wit. There is a dramatic twist at the end; the men don’t win their ladies but have to promise to undertake acts of contrition for a year before they are allowed to woo them again.
This is a tale of masculine bravado, folly and sexual desire meeting feminine grace, wit and good sense. Berowne, the king’s leading courtier who is said to have the longest speech in Shakespeare, is expertly played by Edward Bennett. In a flawless performance, he does not miss a trick with his sublime speech, facial expressions and gestures. The large ensemble cast works like a well-oiled machine: the clown Costard (Nick Haverson) is brought to life so you laugh out loud; Spanish traveller Don Amato (John Hodginson) keeps you smiling with his English malapropisms; and pompous schoolmaster (Steven Pacey) and noble curate (John Arthur) amuse and bemuse with their convoluted use English. The music (more than usual in this play) has been composed by Nigel Hess and is pitch perfect.
‘Love’s Labour’s Won’
The whole cast move smoothly into new roles in ‘Much Ado’. Italian nobleman Leonato (Pacey) lives in Messina with his pretty daughter Hero (Rebecca Collingwood) and his quick-witted niece Beatrice (Lisa Dillon). They welcome home from war their friends Don Pedro (Hodgkinson), his bitter bastard brother Don John (Alexander), successful soldier Claudio (Tunji Kasim), and the clever and argumentative Benedick (Bennett). While Claudio falls in love with Hero, Benedick and Beatrice are constantly sparring.
Don John plots to undermine the wedding between Hero and Claudio, while the friends of Benedick and Beatrice scheme to bring the unlikely couple together in marriage. After misunderstandings, melodrama and a magical comic scene involving this play’s clown Constable Dogberry (Haverson), all ends happily. The finale is a rousing song and dance routine by the cast to another of Hess’s memorable numbers, played by Bob Broad and his excellent small orchestra.
The productions are bound for London’s Haymarket for a two-week run from 9 December. Meanwhile, catch them if you can at the Festival Theatre until 29 October. This is Shakespeare at its absolute best. You will love these productions, and you will definitely be amused.