Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare, RSC, Courtyard Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon

  October 2008  
  < BACK  

A magnificent tree sprawls its aged branches across the Courtyard Theatre stage. Shards of green and yellow glass hang suspended from the heavens like sparkling dew-encrusted autumn leaves. Coloured lamps shine through the leaves which glitter and glow as they slowly revolve with the slightest movement of air. We are in a magical sylvan world outside the walls of the King of Navarre's court. Three young Elizabethan-clad men lounge beneath the tree, soaking up the last of the late-summer's sun. One reads a book, another strums on a lute, whilst the third, lying flat on the ground, smothers his face with a floppy straw hat and seems to sleep the day away.

This delightful, languorous opening sets the scene, but certainly not the fantastical pace, of Gregory Doran's wonderful production of Love's Labour's Lost. The young men's peace is shattered by the arrival of their royal host, Navarre's king Ferdinand, who forces them to sign an agreement to shun female company and dedicate themselves to more cerebral activities. All sign, though Berowne, more vociferous or more honest than his compatriots, fights tooth and claw to avoid the agreement's strictures. Eventually, even Berowne begrudgingly complies, his looks of astonishment and dismay betraying the serous misgivings he has for the whole venture.

All is decided. All is signed. Horrific penalties are agreed. No woman may enter the inner sanctum of the court. A problem. King Ferdinand has forgotten the arrival of the young Princess of France and her retinue, sojourning in his land whilst her father lies bedridden at home. How can he entertain his guest after signing his own strict edict? The answer, not to allow her to enter Navarre's palace, but to force her to camp outside in semi-rural splendour. Like the Field of the Cloth of Gold, majestic tents will create an artificial court for the princess.

That settled, there are more problems. The Princess arrives and Ferdinand immediately, and obviously, falls hopelessly in love with her. His three companions, likewise, recognize in the princess's ladies-in-waiting the three young lovelies who have smitten their hearts. What follows is a evening of delicious linguistic sparring and seduction, of glorious costumes and props, and of sensual, sexual comedy on the finest scale.

Although the cast carry themselves as flawlessly as a well-oiled royal carriage, some performances cannot help but shine. David Tennant is a mesmerizing Berowne, his expressive eyes and purposely tongue-tied delivery capturing the youthful exuberance and frustration of this light-hearted malcontent. Tennant attracts his fair share of youthful followers in the audience. They are not disappointed, Berowne presented as the ultimate heartthrob whose endearing characteristics are conveyed apparently effortlessly to his adoring fans. How brave to allow Tennant to use his Glaswegian accent as Berowne. How brave and how successful.

Edward Bennett as Ferdinand presents an arrogant and flawed young king. Bennett's representation of kingly gaucheness when he meets the Princess of France, as well as his subsequent attempts to capture a heart which is already his, are comic genius. Tom Davey as the lanky Longaville and Sam Alexander as the clumsy Dumaine add their own meticulously-observed characterizations, creating a quartet of male lovers in perfect harmony.

These young men could not fall for any young women. Mariah Gale's Princess of France, Nina Sosanya's Rosaline, Kathryn Drysdale's Katherine and Natalie Walter's Maria are more than matches for their doting counterparts. When these women converse together there is a deep sense of camaraderie and of intellectual fire. They are certainly a match for any man's wit. Their chaperone, the faithful Boyet, spars with them with subtle sexual banter. Mark Hadfield presents a pompous and camp faithful retainer who is as dismissive of affectation in others as he is prone to it himself.

Much xenophobic merriment erupts through the comic antics of Joe Dixon, who, as the visiting Spanish nobleman Don Adriano de Armado (what a name in a play obviously written within less than a decade of the Armada defeat), struts and puffs his way about the stage. Dixon's Don makes all the linguistic errors expected from a comedy Spaniard, with lots of Ďarse'-jokes in his mispronunciations. The audience loved his humour and his slow, measured entrances and exits were invariably greeted with spontaneous applause.

In fact, there was a lot of spontaneous applause throughout this play, sometimes for a particularly fine comic speech from Tennant, at others, for the outrageous verbosity of Holofernes (Oliver Ford Davies) or the rapping musicality of Costard (Ricky Champ) or the sexual shenanigans of Jaquenetta (Riann Steele). At one moment in the play, Jaquenetta hoists up her skirts, straddles a milking stool, and pummels a milk-churn with such knowing skill that it is almost pornographic in its humorous climax. Every opportunity for comedy is grasped in both hands by the entire company. It never misses the mark.

Francis O'Connor's wonderful setting, Katrina Lindsay's meticulous and sumptuous costumes, and Bruce O'Neill's music add to the wonder of the evening. Doran has created yet another masterpiece, his golden touch never faltering throughout the evening. As the lovers part at the strangely bitter end, crying out for that lost sequel Love's Labour's Won, Doran's experience with puppetry adds a final touching dimension to the play. A Barn Owl flies majestically around the stage as Berowne and Rosaline gaze at each other from afar, their stillness and the owl's soaring animation in moving counterpoise. This moment of loss, so touchingly evoked, encapsulates the joyous journey to which we had all been invited. Tears still swell at the mental image.

© Kevin Quarmby, 2008