Saturday, October 18, 2014

Love's Labour's Lost (RSC)

Christopher Luscombe's charming production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost is set in the Edwardian era on a Victorian manor. The King of Navarre and his three friends vow to give up sleep, food, and women and instead dedicate themselves to studying. However, the king inconveniently forgot about the arrival of the Princess of France and her female entourage. Needless to say, the men's studies don't go as planned.

The play itself has gradually been gaining popularity. It premiered in front of Queen Elizabeth I, which partially explains the erudite language. The wordplay is intense, and its many obscure references are often lost on audiences. Labour's plot is delightfully silly. It is the play's rhetoric that elevates it. The dialogue is crammed with puns, rhymes, and poetry.

The witty and pragmatic Berowne, its protagonist, is perhaps the closest character we have to a young Shakespeare. He is played by the always-wonderful Edward Bennett. King Navarre and his friends (Sam Alexander, William Belchambers, and Tunji Kasim) are likewise endearing.

Of the women, Michelle Terry fares best as Berowne's clever love-interest. Unfortunately, the women don't have nearly as much fun as the men. Their sparkling costumes are stunning, but the focus on a Downton-Abbey-esque reserve makes their scenes rather dull.

The supporting cast is quite strong. One plot follows the love-struck Spaniard Don Armado (John Hodgkinson), and another detours into conversations between two ridiculously pretentious scholars. David Horovitch is especially funny as Holofernes, whose nonsensical discourse is particularly difficult to grasp. Peter McGovern brings wit and a sweet singing voice to the role of Moth, a page who humors Don Armado and his love-sickness.

The subplots converge in a performance of the 'Nine Worthies' for the lords and ladies. This play-within-a-play is a heart-warming musical inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan. The ensemble impressively handles the production's numerous musical and dance numbers.

Nigel Hess's score underlines the entire play. His music, performed by a backstage band, is alternately distracting, corny, and moving. Also essential are Simon Higlett's complex and gorgeous sets. One of the most memorable scenes takes place at night on a roof, illuminated from below.

The 'Nine Worthies' devolves into chaos caused by personal rivalries, and the comedy concludes on an uncharacteristically melancholy note. The 1914 setting lends great resonance to the ending. Here, Love's Labour's Lost is a diversion full of pre-war innocence.

The director has decided to pair it with the post-war play Much Ado About Nothing, or, in this case, Love's Labour's Won. The first half of this two-parter is a delightful piece that will likely improve as it continues to run. While Much Ado is the better-known play, Love's Labour's Lost has its own glittering charm.

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