The RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, screened last weekend, was breathtaking. I’m wondering how to record my responses without
maundering on tediously over every little detail. Warning: prepare for a hail of superlatives as you are peppered with exclamation marks and some very staccato-style notes.
Settings, costumes, lighting and music created the nostalgic romance of the last summer before the world changed forever in 1914, and perfectly supported the brilliant cast and their command of the challenging language of the play. In the discussion preceding the performance an actor suggested the audience just let the language wash over us, and avoid attempting “a simultaneous translation”. This was excellent advice. Such was the skill of the performers that within a few moments the elaborate versification ceased to intimidate and the meaning was clear, with all the fun and feelings of these youthful characters.
The four young men were clever, charming and delightfully young, with their foolish plans already shown to lack depth and forethought in the first scene by the slightly more analytical Berowne. He too is young, though, and indulgently goes along with them. Even in that first scene the cast brought out every last trace of comedy, and from then until the change of tone in the last scene, the audience was kept laughing.
The young men shared the comedy with a troupe of gloriously individual characters. There were so many skilled performances on display that it is almost unfair to pick out particular actors, but I must mention some features and scenes that will linger long in my memory.
These include Don Armado’s languid, love-sick poses and his quite touching sentimentality, Moth’s strong and sweet voice, Holofernes’ odd little fadings away in mid-thought and Costard’s triumphant examination of the meanings of “remuneration” and “emolument”; the duet performed by Moth and Armado; and the joyous conclusion to the first half: the uncovering of the young men’s secret passions. This is usually played with the actors hiding in trees or bushes in the park, but here the action took place on the roof – a magnificent re-creation of part of the famous Charlecote Manor. The scene was a wonderful example of how comic suspense can be built up, even when the audience can predict perfectly the inevitable progress of the action. Berowne was played by Edward Bennett, and after his secret was revealed, Bennett achieved a beautiful transition from witty word-play to a warmly sincere rejection of their immature vows and a heartfelt defence of the power of love. It was a strongly effective conclusion to the first half.
The second half was, if anything, even better than the first, having scope not only for unbridled hilarity but also for the intrusion of the outside world, bringing the need to face reality.
In the Masque of the “Muscovites” the young men gave a fair impression of Cossack steps, helped by the wild whirling of Moth, and sang with fine deep “Russian” voices. There was no time to consider the absurdity of their failure to recognise their lady loves, hidden only by minimal eye-masks, as the action hastened on to the Pageant of the Nine Worthies.
These “amateur” acts, with their improvised props, were very funny, particularly Moth’s appearance as the infant Hercules, with fake biceps, wrestling the snakes, but as was observable throughout the play there were constant changes of tone, one instance being the Princess’s kindness to the crestfallen Dr. Nathaniel which softened the mood.
The pageant collapsed with Costard’s challenge to Armado to fight, creating a high point of tension. The arrival of Marcade with news of the French king’s death brought a powerful turn-about, as the ladies prepared to leave and the young men came to terms with the need for a more serious approach to real life and to love.
The final songs of Spring and Winter are always a moving ending, but in this production the composer (Nigel Hess) created an entirely new version, combining the two into one chorus performed beautifully by nearly the whole cast. Armado’s last line: “You that way, we this way” is usually spoken to the audience, but here he addressed the young men. Now dressed in Army uniform, they saluted and marched away.
Setting the play in 1914 was doubtless in part associated with the widespread commemorations of the First World War. Certainly the customary idea of that idyllic last summer, as belonging almost to another world, followed by the dreadful truth of war as the real world, gave added depth to the final scene. It was an impressive finish, as the men faced a far greater trial than that imposed by the ladies, to test their love, though a tiny quibble might be that it could be thought too far beyond the scope of the comedy.
I cannot praise too highly the actors’ speaking skills. Despite the complexity of much of the language, and the speed required for much of the delivery, their diction was perfect. The progress of ideas and the movement of the plot (minimal though it is) were always clear. As well, throughout the show the focus was kept firmly on the theme of language in all its diversity of style and purpose, including the intricate versification and self-conscious cleverness of the young men, the unproductive and smug pedantry of Holofernes and Dr. Nathaniel, the almost total inarticulateness of Dull, the Hispanic mangling of English by Don Armado, the bright self-improvement of Moth, the ladies’ barbed language as a weapon for verbal fencing and their insistence on plain, true speaking at the end, and the confusions over long unfamiliar words shown by Costard. All these uses flowed effortlessly through the lively comedy of the action, and of course led on to the final display of true sincerity of speech at the close.
This was a beautiful, richly comic and sensitively subtle performance. I found much to enjoy and admire, and to think over at leisure afterwards.