December 3rd, 2009
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Designed by Jonathan Fensom
Music Composed by Claire van Kampen
Jade Anouka – Maria
Philip Cumbus – Ferdinand
Seroca Davis – Moth
Jack Farthing – Dumaine
Patrick Godfrey – Sir Nathaniel
Christopher Godwin – Holofernes
Trystan Gravelle – Berowne
William Mannering – Longaville
Fergal McElherron – Costard
Rhiannon Oliver – Jacquenetta
Thomasin Rand – Rosaline
Paul Ready Don – Armado
Siân Robins-Grace – Katherine
Tom Stuart – Boyet
Michelle Terry – Princess of France
Andrew Vincent – Dull
Musicians Nick Perry, George Bartle, David Hatcher, Arngeir Hauksson, Claire McIntyre, Benjamin Narvey
Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, has been considered by critics particularly suitable for a courtly audience; indeed, it was once staged for Queen Elizabeth as a Christmas entertainment. With its depiction of verbal sparring among the nobility and its emphasis on notions of rank and wit, this comedy is designed to delight (and flatter) a refined and educated audience. Such a courtly audience vanished, of course, long ago, and director Dominic Dromgoole is left with us, motley contemporaries ranging from academics through theaterphiles to puzzled high school students. And he has decided to please contemporary tastes by underscoring all the play’s silliness—in the process making Shakespeare’s nobles decidedly less elevated creatures than they appear in the text. The distance between the King of Navarre and the Princess of France on the one hand, and the rustic Costard and braggart Don Adriano on the other, is certainly shorter.
Dromgoole may be on to something. There is silliness aplenty in the text, if not food fights and fart jokes. The play begins with the King and three of his courtiers making a doomed pledge to spurn the company of women; they will spend the next three years studying and fasting (and with very little sleep). Right on cue, the Princess of France and three of her ladies appear on state business, and the King must either insult them or break his vows. Each man falls in love and, unbeknownst to the others, plots feverishly to win his chosen lady, leading to the earliest of Shakespeare’s great eavesdropping scenes, in which the men overhear one another reading love letters—outrage ensues, as each is shocked, simply shocked, that the others would break their vows. Dromgoole’s staging is over-the-top slapstick. At one point King Ferdinand, played by Philip Cumbus with slightly bug-eyed intensity—he’s always mid-clench—rolls slowly across the ground behind an oblivious courtier. Powder horns collide with buttocks. This kind of staging more tightly links the foolishness of the courtiers with those of the lowly, notably the lovesick Spanish fop Don Adriano de Amado. Paul Ready, as the Don, comes close to stealing the show. He couldn’t be more soulful or doleful: all sad-dog eyes, wispy hair and Castilian lisp, he sighs for the love of the busty, gap-toothed dairymaid Jaquenetta (Rhiannon Oliver), even as he shudders at her lowness. The character most aware of the general atmosphere of folly, the courtier Berowne, is played here with engaging wryness by Tristan Gravelle. After the show a colleague expressed some doubts about a “Welsh Berowne”—but the strong accent served to highlight the character’s status as outsider, as naysayer at the court.
The danger here is that the energetic application of physical comedy might overwhelm the intricate wordplay for which Love’s Labour’s Lost is celebrated. Everyone in the play displays verbal dexterity—or at least tries to. The Princess at one point complains that “good wits will be jangling,” while Don Adriano responds to his page’s punning with the delighted cry “sweet smoke of rhetoric!” We even, for good measure, meet a schoolmaster and a curate given to flights of pedantry. Many of the speeches and exchanges rely on vocabulary, particularly in Latin, not easily recognized by a contemporary audience. When the appropriately named Constable Dull hears the schoolmaster’s “haud credo” (“I don’t believe it!”) he stubbornly misinterprets the utterance as “old gray doe”; Don Adriano and his page get hopelessly entangled in a battle of wits with Costard (we move, somehow, from notions of rhetoric and composition to geese and plantain leaves). Some of this inevitably fails to come across, but the cast sells these routines—almost vaudevillian at times—sufficiently to carry us along. And the antic quality of these verbal contests beautifully contrasts with the moments when we slow down to appreciate the effect of really fine words. When the curate reads to the illiterate dairymaid a love letter from the Berowne (mistakenly delivered to her), all are agog at the heartfelt, soaring words. Jaquenetta, ravished by language, even plants a fervent kiss on the startled old man, while the schoolmaster pulls himself together to offer a critique of the text. Christopher Godwin and Patrick Godfrey are pitch-perfect as the schoolmaster and curate, making up for the somewhat too strident performances of Fergal McElherron and Seroca Davis as Costard and the Page.
It is, arguably, the Princess of France who is the linchpin figure of the play: one who both loves and critiques love, both pursues and deplores verbal games. As the Princess, Michelle Terry, seen recently in the National Theatre production of All’s Well that Ends Well, shows real presence, dominating every scene in which she appears. Her Princess throws herself into foolery with a will, but at key moments seems weary, even sour: her regret over the deer she will kill in the hunt has true weight here. (Admittedly, the Globe’s use of charming and lifelike deer puppets makes us more aware of the troubling line between sport and cruelty in this play). And Terry must pull off the work’s most tricky moment, the volte face when a scene of theatricals and merriment gives way to sudden news of death. Dromgoole has taken the party scene of act five to new levels of chaos, and the messenger enters in the midst of a full-blown food fight. The shift is more brutal than usual, and Terry’s transformation from wild glee to mourning is mesmerizing. In a bittersweet touch, the entire cast joins in singing the strange, masque-like songs of spring and winter that close the play. It’s a delicate ending for a production that embraces crudeness.