Love's Labour's Lost

William Shakespeare
RNT Olivier
(2002)

Trevor Nunn's final play as artistic director of the National Theatre shares the cast of Anything Goes with which it is playing in repertory. This is obvious, as throughout the production, there appears to be a musical trying to escape.

Within John Gunter's wonderfully rural set - parkland containing a gigantic tree with spider-like limbs - tales of love are played out by an excellent ensemble cast.

Quite why the Prince of Navarre and his three young friends should have decided to issue an edict banning contact between men and women for three years is not absolutely clear. The fun that derives from their attempts to stick to the law while wooing the Princess of France and three of her lady friends is immense.

The key players are not as one might expect, the King (Simon Day) and Princess (Olivia Williams,) but his right-hand man, the far more verbally fluent Berowne played by Shakespeare in Love heart-throb, Joseph Fiennes, and his opposite number amongst the ladies, Rosaline (Kate Fleetwood). The verbal jousts between this Beatrice and her bushy-moustachioed Benedick are always witty, often playful.

The poignancy of the relationships is well set off by the opening and closing scenes of Tommies being battered during World War One. This brings the play forward about 300 years and also moves the location of the action to England from France. This seems to work very well unlike some other recent experiment in updating Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas.

One effect of the relocation is that some of the bit-part players are given a new lease of life. In particular, the funny schoolmaster, Holofernes (Robin Soans) becomes the kind of bumbling Mr Chips Englishman that National Theatre audiences really love. Similarly, the part of the Princess's aide, Boyet, brings a superb, wittily light performance from Philip Voss.

The combination of love-making in the old-fashioned sense and the subterfuge that the ban on the sexes' consorting brings is the material for much light entertainment. When the serious love-making becomes too much, it is parodied beautifully by the impeccably dressed Spanish Knight, Don Adriano de Armado (Martin Marquez), a veritable Don Quixote, and his rival, the honest farm worker, Costard (Richard Henders), as they amiably fight over a hand of a Yorkshire milkmaid (Annette McLaughlin).

By far the funniest sequence of the whole production is when the four men, dressed as Muscovite Cossacks, attempt to woo the four women in fencing masks. This provides hilarity of the highest order particularly when the King cannot keep up his Russian accent and slips into broad Glaswegian.

Nunn seems determined to bring in the musical skills of his cast with odd songs from Moth (Akiya Henry); the King, along with his friends Longaville (Tam Mutu) and Dumaine (John Barrowman), the latter clearly an American musical star with a great voice; and at the end, a whole chorus line.

At times, the movement of the actors, even in the spoken passages is far more reminiscent of some musical blockbuster than normal straight acting too. As this in many ways encapsulates Nunn's spell in charge at the National, perhaps it is an apt epitaph as he hands over the reins to Nicholas Hytner.

All in all, this is a very pleasant and enjoyable romp and it is a pleasing change to see the women running rings around the men as they charm them.

Love's Labour's Lost runs until 18th March.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher