Love’s Labour’s Lost/Love’s Labour’s Won (Online review)

Love’s Labour’s Lost/Love’s Labour’s Won (Online review)

This being my 50th consecutive day of online review posting – I thought I should mark the occasion with something special

The 2014 RSC productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won make an ingenious pairing which benefit from watching in close succession. The latter is actually Much Ado About Nothing under a different title and seems the likeliest candidate of several proposed for this so-called lost play. Certainly, there are striking similarities between the sparring couple at the heart of each text and by using cross casting and the same setting for both productions these parallels are further reinforced.

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Christopher Luscombe’s lush direction sets Love’s Labour’s Lost in the period immediately prior to the First World War. It is an idyllic Edwardian summer and a group of young students at Navarre (here an Oxbridge College) have come up with a scheme to avoid women for three years – indeed they must remain at least a mile away. This attempt at extreme social distancing is doomed to failure as almost immediately four young women turn up and…well, it isn’t difficult to guess what transpires. At the heart of the two groups, Rosaline and Berowne, slug it out with words and trade verbal insults in a manner which tells us that, far from their declared antipathy, they are absolutely made for each other. This trope is repeated in Love’s Labour’s Won with Beatrice and Benedick again always at apparent loggerheads. These central figures are older, wiser and even more cynical but show a continued trajectory started by their younger counterparts. The summeriness of the first play is replaced by a more wintry feel in the second in a setting which is now Christmas time 1918 as troops return from the war and start to pick up the pieces of their lives.

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Michelle Terry (Rosaline/Beatrice) and Edward Bennett (Berowne/Benedick) are perfect casting and although their characters are different, the actors show in their performances the common thread that runs between the two pairs. Bennett’s transition from amiable chump in Lost to mature responsibility in Won is particularly well done and Terry’s spiky heroines clearly show who is really in control. Among the rest of the cast there is an embarrassment of riches. In Lost the deluded word-mangling Spaniard Don Adriano as portrayed by John Hodgkinson is an undoubted delight as is Constable Dull played by Chris McCalphy. In Won Sam Alexander’s malignant Don John (who in this version is given a plausible psychological reason behind his hatred) and his bitter footman sidekick Borachio (Chris Nyak) are the stand outs. Two beautifully orchestrated performances by Nick Haverson as the clowns Costard and Dogberry are another highlight. His version of the out of his depth police constable in Won was a comic tour de force but completely underpinned with psychological realism as we come to realise he is probably a victim of shell shock.

The excellent acting is fully backed by the production and design teams’ obvious commitment to excellence. Music has a significant role to play in both shows; as composed by Nigel Hess there are suggestions of Ivor Novello, Gilbert and Sullivan, Noel Coward and even Cole Porter – all evocative of the age in which the plays are set. There’s a nice running gag in Lost where Costard becomes completely bemused by the source of the music which underscores some of the action. The costumes are, unsurprisingly, sumptuous. The sets by Simon Higlett are beautifully done and, based as they are on Charlecote Park near Stratford upon Avon, play to the nation’s love for Downton Abbey. We are treated to a sumptuous drawing room (dominated by a huge Christmas tree in Won) and manicured lawns on which characters stroll and play bowls. There are also sundry delights which rise up through the floor, so we have a rooftop complete with skylight, a full-sized billiard table and Dogberry’s marvellously cluttered below stairs kitchen.

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The Downton effect is also enhanced by the clear gap between the toffs and the workers with hints that the War has begun to narrow this and change is in the air. While the young men in Lost bend their own rules every which way when it comes to seeing women, Costard is arrested for much the same crime. There is also a sense of condescending patronage about the amateur performance of the Nine Worthies pageant (strongly anticipating Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in its inept chaos) at the end of the play. By the time of Won it is noticeable that the servants are becoming rather more pert and even devious as they undermine some of their masters’ and mistresses’ doings. Of course, what came next historically was the botched peace attempt at creating a united Europe and the  Spanish flu pandemic (I’m saying nothing!)

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Of the two I preferred Lost though I’ll admit there may be some bias having taken part in The Show Must Go Online’s version just a week ago (experience recounted here). The general consensus among the critics is that Won is the better of the two shows. While it is probably true to say that it is the better and more liked play, I didn’t feel it was the better production. As Lost is less well known as a piece there are aspects which come out more fresh-minted than in the other, particularly in the characterisations which are less familiar. There’s a lightness of touch about the word play in Lost which I enjoyed. Even the infamously problematical ending with its abrupt change of tone fits well in this concept. France suffers a fatal loss and the young men reappear kitted out for life on the Western front – a poignant moment which heralds the loss of innocence and the onset of experience so clearly delineated in these plays.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won are both available on Marquee TV. Click here  Marquee TV is a subscription service but has a 14 day free trial period.

Both productions are also available on Digital Theatre – click here  The second production is available (as Much Ado About Nothing) on the BBC IPlayer as part of “Culture In Quarantine” Click here

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For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)

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