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Review – RSC Live – Loves Labours Lost – ****

Last night I went to the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh, to see RSC’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, live from Stratford. This is a play I haven’t seen in production before, though I had a vague idea about the plot – four young men swear to avoid women whilst they study; four women make them break their oaths, but make no commitments themselves.

What a fun evening we had, exploring this theme! The set was magnificent; the cast excelled; we laughed and laughed; and hummed the music and songs on the way home, with the warm glow that comes from an enjoyable evening at the theatre.

The play is one of Shakespeare’s early comedies, written before A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and roughly contemporaneous with Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet. It was probably written before Shakespeare had become a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and certainly before he had gained the practical experience of being a player in the foremost group of players in London. That shows. The language is wonderful and witty. Rhyming couplets mixed with a surfeit of puns and wit. But perhaps the play lacks some attention to plot and practical dramaturgy.


The English countryhouse set

The RSC’s production was set  in an English Country House just before the outbreak of the First World War. The pre-war atmosphere provided a tragic undercurrent  beneath the frothy humour. To start at the end of the play, the four heroes in army uniforms swear to wait a year and a day for their loves, before they march off to war, and most probably, no return.

Let’s get back to  the beginning!  Four young upper-class Englishmen (no more than lip-service to the King of Navarre here) swear to avoid women for three years in order to study. Only Berowne (brilliantly played by Edward Bennett), puts up a little resistance to this rather foolish idea. No sooner are the oaths sworn, than a Princess of France (Leah Whitaker) and three charming ladies-in-waiting arrive  to tempt the heroes . They duly fall,  and most of the play is given over to the attempts of the men to woo the women.

Costard (Nick Haverson) Don Armado (John Hodgkinson)

Costard (Nick Haverson)
Don Armado (John Hodgkinson)

Interwoven with this is a comic story involving Don Armado (well played by John Hodgkinson milking a bad Spanish accent for as many laughs as possible), Costard (a very good Nick Haverson), and a lovely Jaquenetta (Emma Marton) and a host of other servants worthy of a pre-war country house. A pedantic schoolmaster (Holofernes ) and an English curate  add to the fun


The first half ends on a rooftop with Act IV Scene III (surely moved earlier in the play???). The four gentlemen, each thinking themselves alone, reading their poems to their beloved, and ending with a truly moving speech (“O, ’tis more than need…”) on love brilliantly spoken by Berowne .

 The second half is very different in style, being mostly given over to pageant – that usually rather difficult part of a Shakespeare play – here played for laughs.  There is the preparation for the presentation of ‘The Nine Worthies’. The gentlemen, disguised as Russian soldiers (less politically-incorrect than the script’s Blackamoors) woo the ladies with a Russian dance – but the execution does not live up to the promise. The women trick the men again, before the pageant of the Nine Worthies, from which much slapstick humour is derived.

The production ends with one of those wonderful Shakespearean songs, sung for two verses at least with no accompaniment, ‘While greasy Joan doth keel the pot’ – though I seem to have missed that line.


Before we move on to talk about the technicalities, two actors stood out in a very fine cast. Edward Bennett as Berowne moved the whole audience, both in the cinema and at the RSC, with his speech on love at the end of the first half. Both he and Michelle Terry (Rosaline) made their courtship come alive, with attractiveness and edge. What a powerful stage voice and presence Michelle Terry has!!! It all bodes well for Much Ado About Nothing (aka Love’s Labour’s Won) which we’ll be seeing and reviewing on 4th March, and in which they play Beatrice and Benedick. I hope they bring out the pain and edge in that relationship, so often lost in Much Ado.

We have been critical of the technical aspects of RSC Live’s productions in the past, so how did they do with Love’s Labour’s Lost?  Nearly all the problems had disappeared:

The set was magnificent. At least two rooms in an English country house, a lawn outside, and a rooftop scene. And all used very effectively to create the pre-war atmosphere  of the setting.

This setting was filmed so that we were almost unaware of the thrust stage which has caused difficulties in previous RSC Live productions. The play was mostly filmed straight on to the set, with the imposing backgrounds foreshortening the thrust stage- for example, a large countryhouse room at the back of the stage, with a table and chairs on the thrust. This filmed very well, though no doubt the audience at the RST were well aware of the thrust stage.

The camera work was much more subtle than has been in the past. No longer did we have over-dramatic lighting, but instead a more subtle approach which suited the large screen experience.

The sound too, was vastly improved. No more heavy marching sounds as actors disappeared off stage – and only two minor hiccups with loss of sound during the broadcast, though even two seems a bit unnecessary.

The music, too, was enchanting. It had been composed to reflect the pre-war period. There were notes of Elgar, and I thought I detected some Gilbert and Sullivan. I wish more songs had been included. So often a piece of music would play, sounding like the introduction to a song, and then it would stop. No song!!! When there was singing, it was good. Moth made much of his songs, and the unaccompanied closing song was more than moving.

So altogether a much happier experience than previous RSC Live productions we have attended and reviewed.

However, there were two key concerns which came out, which were brought to our attention during the pre-show introductory film.

In this introduction, one of the actors tried to reassure the audience that they didn’t need to worry about what the words meant. Just ‘lie back and enjoy it’, seemed to be the attitude. This makes me a little uncomfortable. Surely one of the roles of the actor is to interpret Shakespeare’s words in such a way that the audience comes to understand them? They’re pretty good words, though a bit difficult for a modern audience.

In the same film, the director expressed delight at the size of the budget that he had been given  – far larger than at any other theatre. The lavish expense certainly showed in the elaborate set: two rooms in an English countryhouse; a rooftop; a garden lawn good enough to play bowls on. Doesn’t come cheap – though it is used for Much Ado About Nothing as well.

It is not so much the money that worries me (though it may worry other, less well-subsidised theatres), but I wonder if the RSC is losing confidence in the ability of Shakespeare’s words to move us. If so, they are surely mistaken, as Berowne’s speech on love and the closing song demonstrated clearly. The complex sets were not necessary for the text to move us, though they were fun. There were other aspects of the production which increase this worry:

As with other RSC productions, ‘naturalism’ is out, to be replaced with a rather mannered production style, which is less effective in helping us to understand the text.

Much of the humour is not Shakespeare’s humour, but actor or production business introduced to get a laugh. Not that Shakespeare’s lines can’t get a laugh. Costard’s speech on Emolument and Remuneration showed the way. But Dumaine’s fear when he loses his teddy-bear?: Dull’s mock dance?: and Pompey’s slapstick in his boat? etc. etc. These were funny, but not Shakespeare. Of course every production needs to add its business, but it’s a question of balance, a balance I fear the RSC is losing.

I end where I started. A wonderfully entertaining production! A great night out. I look forward to another night out at Much Ado About Nothing on 4th March in the company of Michelle Terry, Edward Bennett, and most of the rest of this cast.

If you can get tickets for the RSC Live productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, or Much Ado About Nothing (Love’s Labour’s Won), get them and go!!! You can find out where and when these shows are on near you at: https://onscreen.rsc.org.uk/cinemas-and-tickets/

‘The Director’

 P.S.  We’ve tidied up the structure of the web-site a little and we hope it will be a little easier to understand.  Players-Shakespeare.com now has three  main sections which you should start with:

A Playreading Section, where we offer support to Shakespeare playreaders

Reviews of (mostly) Shakespeare productions

Our Home Page shows the plays we’ve published in our MFFEV5 edition

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