I must confess to a dastardly crime against the Theatre, or myself, in not staying for the second half of Loves Labours Lost at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Perhaps it was the difficulty of the play, or too much slapstick, the industrial scale milking of comic moments, or some of the more bizarre accents too, that turns John Hodkinson’s Don Amardo into a mixture of Shylock and Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It all got rather exhausting then, as did the constant word games and rhyming couplets, though I think it was wanting to gas with an old friend over a drink that really did it. There was a moment of hesitation too when, right at the end of the first half, Berowne erupts into a speech of true Shakespearian power and poetry, presaging deeper things to come, but the friend and the drink won out, no matter how terrifying the price of a Brandy Alexander has become in Central London.
The regret came seeing the deliciously exuberant and utterly charming production of Much Ado About Nothing the next night, so also getting a clearer picture of why director Christopher Luscombe both twins them and sets the plays pre and post First World war. A deeper understanding was only aided by sitting next to the actor Andy Wincott, who plays Adam Macy in the Archers, and no less than Tara King from the Avengers, charming Linda Thorson, whose eyes are as beautiful and foxy as ever, the cause of many adolescent labourings of lust, and who was so effusive about Love’s Labours Lost, darling, she could have walked straight into the magical cast. Linda convinced me I had missed a true theatrical moment though when all that unnatural idealism falters, though the passion is not spent but so rudely interrupted, both by the women banishing the men in the play and here by the horror of a World War, beyond the ceaseless war of the sexes. Then American novelist Phillip Roth is convinced that the reason we still respond to myths like the Iliad and Odyssey, is that the fight for Woman really lies at the bottom of all conflict and all Art. Well, obviously life itself.
As for theatrics, Much Ado About Nothing is very stagy too, yet what indeed is a far richer and more complex play, given added depth of frame by the characters now returning from the Hell of Passchendaele, and the rest, quickly evoked by the stage presence of metal hospital beds and echoes of The Shooting Party, became a tour de force. Here then what was for me far too Norman Wisdom in Nick Haverson’s Costard in Loves Labours, grows into a marvellously rich and wounded Dogsberry, perhaps Shell-Shocked, who had the audience both howling and squirming with genuine human pity. Though not as painful, in the tremendous all singing and dancing sets, as the shaming and apparent death of pretty Hero in the highly dramatic wedding scene. Much Ado is potentially far darker and more cynical than this version, especially in the Iago-esque malevolence of Don John, maybe not so inexplicable in motive considering what had just happened in this time frame, and the venom that lies only just below the Social surface, but that is kept firmly under control and the show fizzes. Steven Pacey is tremendous both as Donnish Holofernes and especially Leonato and though Beatrice and Benedict are very well matched, Edward Bennet’s lovely Benedict steals the laurels, in scenes that must have been a joy to improvise in rehearsal and brought some delightful audience interaction too, punters so love.
The reason for twinning them at all is the echoes the plays share and the theory that Much Ado is in fact the lost Loves Labours Won, so perhaps a sequel, mentioned by Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia, published in 1597, that book that also sounded the murder of Christopher Marlowe. To me the jury is very much out on that, probably still wanting to believe that the lost ‘Won’, like that vanished version of Don Quixote, Cardenio, is still out there somewhere. Yet finding a line through both is convincing and certainly seems to energise the actors in this inspiring ensemble cast.
Meanwhile a very plausible RSC Land has been achieved by the Downtown Abbey style set, reflecting the real and very beautiful Charlcotte Manor in Stratford, the home of the Elizabethan grandee Sir Thomas Lucy. That could lead you wandering off down the fustian halls of Scholarship itself, if to an entirely different play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Since that manor where legend has it Shakespeare was hounded for poaching deer and had to flee for his life, may find its way into the play’s references to lice, a pun on the ‘Luces’ of the Lucy crest. It is also the scene where Justice Shallow first appeared, and Shakespeare was probably taking a swipe at the London Sherriff and obvious crook, Sir William Gardner, relation of Mary Tudor’s Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, who had Shakespeare and others up in late 1596 on charges of Murder and Affray. All more or less convincing speculation in what is still a pretty threadbare biographical patchwork of Shakespeare’s life, swamped by the imaginative astonishment of the plays and his mind. But the firm grounding does no harm at all, though must raise costs over the Elizabethan chimney pots. Then it is an extremely generous production, in the lovely setting of the Theatre Royal (if I still think the RSC needs a London home), much aided by Nigel Hess’s specially commissioned score, that gives it a touch of the Musical, the verve of the cast and, since Donald Trump is about to redecorate The White House in Gold, the post fin de siècle sense that we might all be entering very interesting and ugly times indeed.
The photos show Costard and Don Armado, Beatrice and Benedict and the inspiring ensemble cast in the RSC and Chichester Festival’s twinned productions of Loves Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, currently running in London at The Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Tickets by kind courtesy of the RSC.