Thankfully for The Show Must Go Online, Shakespeare decided to keep things quite light for two consecutive plays – we were spared bloodshed once again with Love’s Labour’s Lost following hot on the heels of The Comedy of Errors. Not that a bit of onscreen/onstage bloodshed is a bad thing (my weekly Tarantino viewings are still going strong, after all), but in a week where we’ve all been left more confused than before, I think a bit of levity – and innuendo – was the best possible antidote.
The first time I saw this play was back in 2016, when the RSC’s most recent production transferred for a winter season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. To say I was underwhelmed is probably an understatement… The design was beautiful, and the pre-First World War context made the ending rather poignant, but actually getting through the play did feel like a laborious process; to me, there was no real suggestion that it was a comedy in any way, and they lost me in its various wordy passages. You can understand me then being reluctant to return to the play when it was announced as the summer indoor production during Michelle Terry’s first season as AD at Shakespeare’s Globe – but that production completely transformed my understanding and appreciation of the play. Director Nick Bagnall’s fairytale concept was made for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and I will never forget Jos Vantyler as Don Armado (and, every now & then, Moth). So I had no worries as Love’s Labour’s Lost approached in this series.
Introducing this production was Andrea Smith: member of the British Shakespeare Association, former journalist, and long-term Shakespeare fan who believes Love’s Labour’s Lost gets “overlooked”. Indeed, it was lost in history for about 200 years, with no known public performances between the early seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. What Smith particularly enjoys about the play is the “quartet of strong women”, versus a group of suitors who are more like Simon from The Inbetweeners than grown men – the women “having to use words as they have little other power”. The basic story is fairly straightforward, but as this is one of Shakespeare’s wordier plays that can’t be a bad thing; more than a third of the text is in rhyme, and it can be a challenge to follow it all completely – though really just tuning into the overall sense of the play is what matters. A helpful hint, too, from Smith was to look out for the wordplay, including the likes of foreswear & foresworn – making promises & broken promises, respectively.
The King of Navarre and his companions (Berowne, Dumaine & Longaville) are about to begin a reclusive existence, swearing to study, fast & avoid women for three years – forgotten almost instantly when the Princess of France arrives with her ladies (Rosaline, Katherine & Maria) and attendant, Boyet. Due to the King’s decree that no woman should come within a mile of the court, the Princess’ company sets up camp outside the court; when the King & his followers come to visit the camp, however, he falls in love with the Princess and his companions with her ladies… Also residing in the court is visiting “fantastical Spaniard” Don Adriano de Armado, who exposes Costard’s tryst with Jaquenetta; the King orders Costard’s arrest, though Don Armado soon afterwards confesses his love for Jaquenetta to Moth, his page – he writes her a love letter, sending Costard as his go-between. Berowne also employs Costard, though to deliver a letter to Rosaline – needless to say, the two letters get mixed up, leaving the recipients confused and Berowne at the risk of being exposed…
This week’s game (perhaps unsurprisingly) was spot the dirty jokes! Theoretically right up my street, though a bit more of a challenge when you consider this is quite dense Shakespearean text. It’s also interesting to consider how the meanings – or at least implied meanings – of words change over time, as something completely innocent in the 1500s could induce a childish giggle in us now (such as “Cupid’s butt shaft”). Though perhaps that’s the point? For example, in Twelfth Night Olivia asks Viola (as Cesario) if she is a “comedian” – this actually means ‘actor’, but more often than not is played and/or understood in the way we would use the word now, and gets a laugh at the question rather than the response.
In a very roundabout way, this is me saying I laughed a lot and wrote a fair few lines down, but I’m probably just conferring my own modern meanings on them! Although I was left with very little doubt in Act 4 Scene 1, where the women & Boyet discuss the letter that Costard has brought to them – thanks in no small measure to Emily Carding’s knowing glances and actions. (Cue bonus GIF)
A nice mix of new and familiar faces in this production’s cast.
Without even saying anything Don Armado is something of a walking innuendo machine. In Stephen Leask’s hilarious performance I heard Lord Flashheart with a dash of Toast of London, all brought together in a vibrant purple suit – with all that going on a comically bad Spanish accent wasn’t required, and it worked all the better for it. Leask’s delivery was absolutely spot on, and his partnership with Alice Merivale as a laidback (almost to the point of disinterest) Moth was a real treat.
A slight technical hitch allowed for a bit more Shakespearean ad-libbing from Ben Galpin & Adam Parker, which amused me no end.
Berowne: He speaketh silently! Perchance if I move the tree nearer I may overhear…
King of Navarre: Mayhap love hath clipped his tongue?
I know, it’s the little things. But you have to admire the quick-thinking involved in an attempt to alert their cast mate without completely breaking character! There were also some ingenious hiding places involved in this scene (Longaville becoming the Invisible Man, thanks to Zoom), and a welcome cameo for Shaun the Sheep – almost (but not quite) upstaging a supporting performance from some Stratford-upon-Avon ducklings earlier on in the play…
As well as the Invisible Man effect, the technological innovation continued with the idea to dub the voices of the letter writers over the actor reading them, with amusing results; it’s great that they managed to come up with something that’s entertaining but also allowed the character to really come through.
This production has cemented Love’s Labour’s Lost in my good books, confirming to me that it wasn’t the play that was the problem the first time I saw it – it was the interpretation. The ending was particularly well done; one of the potential issues with the play is that it doesn’t have the traditional ending you see in other comedies, so it was nice to see it resolved without rewriting Shakespeare’s story – and a wonderful musical performance from Stephen Leask. The perfect way to bid adieu to the comedies in time for this week’s return to the histories.
Next week: Richard II
Love’s Labour’s Lost was broadcast on 13 May 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page.