Love's Labours Lost

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington DC
Part of the Complete Works Festival Swan, Stratford

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Those of a sensitive disposition are advised to put some distance between themselves and the production of Love’s Labours Lost currently to be seen at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. Given that the production is by a Washington based company, the best in America, according to the programme, the width of the Atlantic ought to do it. Stand not upon the order of going but go at once.

For, like Old Hamlet, I could tell a tale whose lightest word would shrivel up your soul, freeze your blood, make your eyes start from their sockets and each particular hair to stand on end “like quills upon the fretful porpentine”. Suffice to say the action of the play is here relocated to India – the King of Navarre is a Maharishi figure; his three chums a 1960s rock band; Costard is a cartoon hippy and the Princess of France and her entourage - Charlie’s Angels. Brother, I advise you to the best I have told you what I have seen and heard; but faintly; nothing like the image and horror of it: pray you, away.

For those of sterner mettle who would, with Lear, cry: “Pour on; I will endure”, I have to say that though these Labours come somewhat saucily to the Swan, there is good sport at their making and Michael Kahn’s production has to be acknowledged a crowd-pleaser. The cast too radiate the sort of rude health, supreme self-confidence and unflagging good cheer which proved equally successful in winning over English hearts and minds a little over 50 years ago.

For all its chutzpah though, the production’s premise doesn’t pass muster for a minute. Leaving aside the careless dash with which Kahn mixes the 1960s and 70s, amid the kaftans, cosmonauts (really!), hot pants and high-heeled boots is an unreconstructed Don Armado whose swordstick, ceremonial stamping, mangled vowels - “I wish you piss” - and Dali moustaches belong to another production. The presence too, at the ashram, of Holofernes, here reincarnated as a dusty US campus academic – a comic tour de force by Ted van Griethuysen owing more than something to W C Fields – is unexplained.

The use of R & B, which peppers the production like grapeshot, isn’t. In case the sight of the band arriving, carrying guitars – the drums come after – is not sufficient clue, a programme note from Kahn spells it out: “When I thought of the three lords as a band, I realized that we could have music and make all of the sonnets songs”. Now Caliban found the world full of twangs and other strange noises but cheerily concluded that they “hurt not”. This, however, from one hardened over many years to some pretty rough treatment. The Oscrics of the world, ones more used to fate handing them a slice of duck, rather than a cuff across the windpipe, as Wodehouse had it, could find themselves concluding with Dr Johnson that unhappiness may proceed not from any single crush of overwhelming evil but “small vexations continually repeated”.

The conceit though does give rise to both one of the production’s best bits of business - and daftest, viz the scene in which the King and his three friends, ignorant that another has preceded him and is now in hiding, come on in turn and confess their love for one of the French women, before reciting a self-composed ‘pome’. Here, of course, three of them perform a song. The last, a rocking piece by the drummer, prompts the other three, still in hiding, to join in, Berowne, or ‘Broon’, as he is known, admirably multi-tasks by both clinging to a palm tree, playing the guitar and adding harmonies - now you’d never find a drummer capable of that. Needless to say, despite all this, all four remain blithely unaware of the presence of the others – a Kahn trick, you might say.

Kahn is right though to insist that Love’s Labours Lost is a play “driven by language” - critic Harold Bloom dubs it “an exuberant fireworks display”. I was minded though of Dr Johnson’s testy observation that Shakespeare could be “perplexed and obscure” and I’m not sure that this production, goofy and good-natured as it is, best serves such a lexically obscure and convoluted work. At times I found Hank Stratton, who plays Berowne, incomprehensible. Still, the ensemble work hard to please and play shines light into some of the obscure moments of the play, chiefly through the aforementioned Griethuysen and David Sabin who plays his curate companion. One thing about Stratton though bothered me until I suddenly realised who he reminded me of – that bland easiness, the perfect teeth, the hand gestures – of course, Bob Monkhouse! You see – I told you there was cause to be alarmed.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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