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Love's Labour's Lost

William Shakespeare
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Globe Theatre

Charlotte Mills (Boyet) Credit: Marc Brenner
Dharmesh Patel (Berowne) Credit: Marc Brenner
Kirsty Woodward (Princess of France), Charlotte Mills (Boyet) and Jade Williams (Rosaline) Credit: Marc Brenner
Paul Stocker (Prince of Navarre) and Jos Vantyler (Don Armado)

Since the seventeenth century, the critics have had problems with Love’s Labour’s Lost. Samuel Johnson labelled it “entangled and obscure” but also admired its “many sparks of genius”.

What’s a director to do with this hybrid romantic comedy in which death interrupts the expected amorous fulfilment and in which the conventions of the poetic forms of verse drama are thrown to the wind by a poet seemingly keen to satirise the profusive superficiality and paltriness of his own craft? In which excessively ornate rhetoric is cruelly mocked: “my beauty, though but mean, / Needs not the painted flourish of your praise.”

First, the plot is thin. The self-righteous, un-self-knowing King of Navarre convinces three of his courtiers—two in this production—to formally forswear female company for three years in order to devote themselves to arduous and purgative academe. Any woman who comes within a mile of the court will have her tongue cut out and any man who speaks to a woman will suffer as great a public shame “as the rest of the court can possible devise”.

Cue the arrival of the Princess of France with her ladies-in-attendance, who proceed to break the men’s hearts, promises and resistance. Latin declensions are replaced by love sonnets, and Amor seems ready to vincit omnia, until Death puts an unexpected and hindering obstacle on the path to romantic fulfilment. It’s a high school romcom in all but name.

Then, the characters are undeveloped caricatures, something that Nick Bagnall, the director of this new production at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, seems to relish rather than rue. Pushing to one side the fact that the comedy is stymied by death à la Much Ado About Nothing, Bagnell chooses to focus on the play’s lambasting of the absurdities of love, and the language of love, à la A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There’s plenty of theatricality and magic in this production, though, starting with the fairy-tale lighting of the candles which will illuminate the drama with enchanted, teasing flickers of light. For it’s all a game, really, Bagnall seems to say; and, indeed, the text overflows with references to hide-and-seek and hunting, snapdragon and sports, dice and sundry diversions.

Hyperbolic caricature is Bagnall’s touchstone. Paul Stocker’s King of Navarre establishes the lie of the land by praising Don Armado’s ostentatious oratory—“That he hath a mint of phrases in his brain; / one whom the music of his own tongue / Doth ravish like enchanting harmony”—while simultaneously and unwittingly lampooning the loquaciousness that is a weak cover for Armado’s and his own masculine maladroitness.

While the men resort to the artifice of Muscovite costumery and Cossack kicks in order to woo, the ladies seek to indulge their very real appetites: the Princess wipes every orifice and hollow in readiness, but not necessarily in the most hygienic sequence, for amatory engagement and the combative ascendency of the women is ever apparent.

Jos Vantyler’s foppish Don Armado is the epitome of the fancy and the folly of the men’s self-regard. A schizophrenic composite of his own narcissism and the subservience of his page, Moth, Vantyler flits with operatic virtuosity between the swagger of his own Spanish lilt and the falsetto Lancashire drawl of Moth—sometimes the verbal comedy almost collapses under the weight of its own cleverness, but on the whole Vantyler carries it off with aplomb.

And Armado’s physical exuberance seeks to find some balance for the play’s emphasis on verbal energies. Music plays a large part in the visceral vigour of this production—and for this, co-composer, cellist and singer Laura Moody deserves significant credit. Kenneth Branagh may have given the play a Busby Berkeley makeover for his 2000 film adaption, but Armado’s farcical spoof, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before’" à la Julio Iglesias—or, perhaps, Russ Abbott—seems a more fitting musical mis-hit.

The cast put in some good performances. Jade Williams’s Rosaline is physically small but impressively sharp-witted and -tongued, relishing the irony and puncturing the emotional effusions of Dharmesh Patel’s Berowne, and of men in general, with dry aplomb.

Patel works hard to make us take Berowne seriously: there is something of the romantic poet in this lover-scholar-courtier and Patel successfully diverts us from comic fripperies to psychological realism, countering the burlesque with beguiling sonneteering.

Stocker’s Prince is the pinnacle of pompousness, but he times the realisation that the men are no longer in control of the games that they have invented and initiated to comic perfection.

There is darkness in this play, though, that Bagnall fails to locate or facilitate. When we learn of the French King’s death, we should feel a dreadful sense of the disruption of the lovers’ path of true love, that never does run smooth, but here the poignancy was missing.

So, the four couples are to be separated for a year and a day, and at the end of the period of mourning the men will renew their courtship of the women. So what?, one might feel. But it’s not a game any longer. As Berowne says, “Our wooing doth not end like an old play / Jack hath not Jill.” The climax should feel real and vivid after all the play-acting, but the sobriety of Bagnall’s close sits uncomfortably alongside the prior tomfoolery.

That said, the audience in the Wanamaker Playhouse seemed more than satisfied. I guess this is a Love’s Labour’s Lost that you will either laud or lament. I found it rather a laborious lampooning of lost lovers, but I can equally imagine someone finding the nomer, "A Laughable Lunacy of the Labours of Love", to be more apposite.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour