Are the RSC right that ‘Much ado about nothing’ was once known as ‘Love’s Labours Won’, the title they’re using for this production? I’m happy to leave that to the Shakespeare scholars. I didn’t feel they made a particularly strong case here for any direct Shakespearean link between the two plays, but they created plenty of links of their own, through set design, music, casting and costume. All these aspects succeeded marvellously in ‘Love’s Labours Lost’ and they’re no less successful here. The two productions taken together are a gloriously exuberant experience, whether or not there’s a lost link between them.
Perhaps more than anything I loved the set design, by Simon Higlett, with scenes sliding in and out and up and down, all directly based on nearby Charlecote Park. A billiards table rises up from below, for Don John and Borachio to play on while plotting the downfall of the lovers; an entire chapel slides in from the back for the wedding scene, the drawing room dominated by a massive Christmas tree comes in and out repeatedly, and the family tomb rises and falls for Claudio to mourn at. To complete the visual effect, the men change from khaki battledress to bright red military dress jackets, to white tie and tails and then to long overcoats and homburg hats, while Michelle Terry as Beatrice starts as a World War I nurse before working her way through an entire wardrobe of Twenties costumes. The overall effect is stunning, with every scene almost posed as a tableau.
In pursuit of the perfect image, of course the Director, Christopher Luscombe, takes some liberties with the play. The initial pretence that the stately home has been converted to a military hospital, with Beatrice and Hero as nurses, lasts no longer than necessary to show off the costumes and establish the link with ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ (and ‘The Christmas Truce’) before they’re into other costumes and enjoying a house party – a slightly odd one too, in which characters dressed as servants dance freely with the guests. The scene where Benedick overhears the conversation staged for his benefit, is then played (brilliantly) as pure farce. Indeed the leading characters spend so much time playing for laughs that it’s a little hard to take them seriously in the tragedy of the chapel scene. And the introduction of a Christmas carol at the start of the second act seems little more than sentimentality.
Overall though the music is another strength of the production, as indeed is the standard of acting from a strong cast. I wasn’t entirely sure about the casting of Don Pedro, who seemed an unlikely rival suitor for Hero, and at one point veered dangerously close to looking and sounding like Bobby Ball playing Lee Mack’s Dad in ‘Not going out’. But Michelle Terry and Edward Bennett are excellent in the lead roles and I enjoyed David Horovitch’s performance as Leonato.
If it leads to performances like this, I’m happy for the RSC to call the play anything it wants.
Another gloriously enjoyable evening at the RSC in Stratford. Shakespeare’s setting of Love’s Labour’s Lost in a court in Navarre, has been moved to a country house in England in the period just before the First World War. Inevitably that brings Downton Abbey to mind, but the influences on this production are much wider than that. There’s certainly a bit of Brideshead Revisited and more than a touch of My Fair Lady. The play within a play in the second act is almost Gilbert and Sullivan, the policeman arriving at the country house is Agatha Christie-ish (as is the vicar),and the gardener Costard seems to be closely modelled on Compo from Last of the Summer Wine. The ending in a big musical number even seems to be have a tinge of Les Miserables. But out of these varied influences, the Director Christopher Luscombe and his team have created something special.
The play is beautifully designed by Simon Higlett, with a wonderful set closely based on Charlecote Park, close to Stratford. The interior of the house slides back to convert into an exterior bowling lawn, and a rooftop setting rises from below. The costumes are a delight, and looking down on the set from the side of the upper balcony, it’s clear that the positioning of the actors in every scene has been carefully thought through from a design perspective as well as a dramatic one. The music by Nigel Hess adds greatly to the enjoyment, both in set piece songs and dances and in occasional incidental music, although the musicians are mostly hidden away.
The cast too is uniformly impressive, from Edward Bennett and Michele Terry as Berowne and Rosaline, through to John Hodgkinson and Peter McGovern as Don Armado and Moth. The rooftop scene where the four men catch each other out writing poems to their loves works wonderfully, the Russian dance in the Second Act is a riot, as is the performance of the Nine Worthies, and the conclusion, where the men, having been told they must wait a year, then re-appear in World War I uniform and march off, made perfect sense and added real poignancy.
The RSC is pairing the play with Much Ado about Nothing, rebadged as Love’s Labour’s Won and set after World War I with the same cast. If it’s anything like as good as this, it will be well worth the trip.