Saturday 18 May 2024

Theatre review: Love's Labour's Lost (RSC/RST)

I would rather see a show relatively early in its run, especially since I review them online and people could read my recommendations and decide what to see based on them (stop laughing at the back, I've been assured it happened once.) But sometimes between rail strikes and me being busy the rest of the run I end up in Stratford-upon-Avon for the final matinée, so you're reading this after the run's ended, sorry if you fancied it. And yes, speaking of fancying, the star name here is Luke Thompson, who for the last eleven years I've been watching on stage have his clothes fall off on the slightest pretext with such regularity it can't all just be down to thirsty directors, he's got to be initiating some of it himself. In an unrelated matter, the show that's now given him above-the-title star status is Bridgerton. In any case, it's also always interesting to see what a new regime at one of the major theatres has chosen as its opening production.

And for Tamara Harvey and Daniel Evans' joint tenure at the RSC they've certainly gone for an eccentric choice: I don't rate Love's Labour's Lost among Shakespeare's biggest comic duds but neither is it a reliable big-hitter. It's comparatively rarely-produced but not outright obscure so I'm obviously not alone in this. Its comic premise is one of the easiest to summarise: Four young men vow three years of study, which includes not only celibacy but avoiding all contact with women. Cue the arrival of four attractive single women their age. Everything beyond that initial premise gets pretty convoluted though. Emily Burns sets her production in Hawaii, on an exclusive spa and resort owned by a tech company billionaire.

King Ferdinand (Abiola Owokoniran) proposes the ridiculous oath, and it became immediately obvious why Burns' imagination went straight to tech bros: The clause that they should only sleep 3 hours a night is exactly the sort of ridiculous brag certain types of people claim as the secret of their inspiration and success. Berowne (Thompson) warns the oath is guaranteed to be broken, and bets the King will be the first to fail. Here the Princess (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) is the heir to a rival company, visiting to settle a legal dispute along with her three best friends. Initially forbidden from entering the spa, once the men have had to meet them once they make every excuse to keep meeting them again.

Burns' production confirms a lot of the popular opinions about Love's Labour's Lost, good and bad: It's the most verse-heavy comedy, a lot of it rhyming, the gags very laboured. If you like those Shakespeare exchanges that are all someone setting up a theoretical situation then explaining it with a series of puns that lost their double meaning at least two centuries ago... no you don't. Anyway, I don't think I'd noticed before how completely reliant on them this play is. I've never been one to think Shakespeare could do no wrong and bloody hell, he was being an insufferable try-hard in this one at times. Holofernes (Tony Gardner) is meant to be a pretentious windbag and honestly, how is anyone supposed to tell the difference?

The subplot is theoretically set up by Costard (Nathan Foad) breaking the island-wide vow and being put under the observation of Don Armado (Jack Bardoe,) here a sweaty Spanish tennis pro. This gets forgotten pretty much immediately as they spend the play acquiring more supporting characters until eventually they perform as the Nine Worthies in front of a mocking court, in a less successful precursor to A Midsummer Night's Dream's similar finale.

This is part of another thing we see in the play, and I guess whether you rack it up to the positives or negatives depends on how well it's done: Various elements are things Shakespeare would revisit and perfect, most famously Berowne and his love interest Rosaline, whose dynamic makes them precursors to Benedick and Beatrice. Thompson and Ioanna Kimbook have a sweet chemistry with just a hint of that spikiness between them. Again, Shakespeare hasn't quite got to the point of giving Rosaline the zingers to match her verbal sparring partner, and I wished I could have seen Kimbook demonstrate more of the steel she hinted at. Maybe, as has happened before at the RSC, the two can pair up again sometime for their more famous counterparts.

And on the purely positive side we have that surefire comic premise and a couple of great setpieces, chief among them the letter scene. Burns takes good advantage of Joanna Scotcher's revolving set, with a slapstick sequence of the four men hiding in nooks and crannies and up a tree to avoid each other. The later scene of the quartet wooing the women "in disguise" can fall flat but here the decision to put the men in clattering knights' armour works, and provides an added gag when Jordan Metcalfe's Boyet gets trapped between the suits.

Overall this doesn't transform Love's Labour's Lost into a consistent laugh riot - you'd certainly need more of the waffle edited out for that - but it makes the most of the opportunities for comedy the play does provide. Thompson's got a fairly large penis Shakespearean back catalogue already and it shows as he confidently takes the reins as the star attraction, leading with an energy and cheekiness that the cast takes and runs with - Iskandar Eaton's Moth and Marienella Phillips' Jaquenetta among those making the most out of supporting roles. And yes, at one point it is decided that to show Berowne actually means his oath to Rosaline he should strip to his pants first. Purely for reasons of comedy, obviously.

Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare ends today at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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