The RSC’s winter season is in full swing, and we caught our first show of the season yesterday afternoon. Love’s Labour’s Lost is being performed in conjunction with Much Ado About Nothing, which, artistic director Gregory Doran surmises, may in fact the play known as Love’s Labour’s Won during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It’s an interesting contention, as it’s often been thought that this was a lost work. Thus the two plays are being performed together for the first time, by the same cast.
The plot of Love’s Labour’s Lost is that the King of Navarre and three of his friends have taken an oath with each other that they will spend three austere years together, devoted to their studies and eschewing female company. But the minute a French princess and her three ladies in waiting arrive on the scene, the four men fall hopelessly in love with the four women, and the oath goes out of the window as they attempt to woo the women – who in turn try to get the better of the men by playing tricks on them. Alongside this storyline is an exuberant Spanish chap called Don Armando, who has fallen in love with a dairy maid.
As well as performing the two plays together, the other imaginative angle on this production is that Shakespeare’s words have been transported to the 20th century. The two plays are set either side of the First World War (it being the centenary of the start of the war, and the same cast also performing The Christmas Truce at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre this season), the events of Love’s Labour’s Lost taking place in the summer of 1914. The plays’ original Mediterranean country house settings are transformed into the same English country house: none other than our favourite National Trust house, Charlecote Park. The set was an absolute triumph. We arrived at our seats and there was the library of Charlecote on the stage before us.
So impressive was this layout that I assumed that this would be the scene for the whole play, but several other settings were managed by this one rolling back to reveal a grass area, and then rolling back in as a different room with a grand piano. At one point, the stage floor opened up and Charlecote’s roof emerged, complete with smoking chimney pots. It was incredibly well done.
Music was a significant element in this production, too. Nigel Hess was the composer (an aside: I met him once, when he was giving a masterclass at Oxford’s Faculty of Music), and he did a superb job of heightening the emotions – or increasing the comedy – at various moments. The musical highlight for me was Don Armando – languishing in lovesickness – at the piano, singing a completely over the top love song accompanied by his very witty young manservant, who addresses his song to a cushion. The whole audience was in stitches!
The 20th century setting – complete with marvellous costumes – combined with the strong romantic comedy component of the play to put one very much in mind of The Importance of Being Earnest. I think it would be fair to put them in the same tradition, and listening to the sparkling dialogue of Love’s Labour’s Lost, one realises that in Shakespeare, Wilde had an extraordinarily witty predecessor. There were notes of Jeeves and Wooster, too, not just in Don Armando’s duo with his youthful manservant, but in the comic situations in which the courtships are played out (in particular, when the four men dress up as Russians and put on a hilarious performance for the women).
For those who think that Shakespeare’s brand of comedy is unsuited to a modern audience, or those who find his archaic English impossible to follow, this is a production that proves how accessible his plays can be. It’s incredibly funny and there was much laughter throughout from a nearly full house. Though a comedy, the play ends on a sombre note, with each of the women telling their admirer that he must wait a year for her to prove his devotion. The men come back on stage in First World War military officer’s uniforms – a reminder of the fact that the play has been set on the brink of war, and the innocence of the summer of 1914 was about to be lost. When we return to the theatre for Much Ado/Love’s Labour’s Won, it will be the winter of 1918. I have to wait until January to see it, but I know it’ll be worth the wait.