The RSC’s twin productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing have enjoyed a sparkling few years, first playing to acclaim in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2014, before being revived at Chichester Festival Theatre back in September, nipping up to Manchester briefly in November, and finally landing on the Haymarket shortly before Christmas. Their London swansong confirms them as the masterpieces they are: two sumptuously frothy escapes into idyllic Edwardian innocence.
Director Christopher Luscombe’s decision to transplant Love’s Labour’s Lost from 16th-century Spain to 1914 England is an inspired one. Shakespeare’s verbal contortions and unrelenting wordplay take on a glossy veneer of Wildean wit. The sparring suitors shine with the blissful flush of untainted youth. And when the short, sharp shock of death puts an end to the flirting and frivolity, it arrives as the outbreak of war. Luscombe engineers an arresting volte-face; the lovers’ pageantry ceases mid-celebration with shuffling uncertainty, before Berowne, Navarre, Longaville and Dumaine, clad in khaki, march off to the Western Front. This is Navarre Revisited. Never such innocence again.
Luscombe and designer Simon Higlett have constructed a pre-war, aristocratic utopia of toe-wriggling richness. Within two towering, red-brick follies, Higlett’s gliding set conjures up salubrious, chaise-longue-filled studies, colonnaded bowls lawns, and secluded, grey-tiled rooftops complete with adorably puffing chimneys. It’s an utterly charming world – an isolated Eden filled with distractions and vanities, into which the First World War intrudes with gut-wrenching suddenness. And it’s all perfectly paired with Nigel Hess’ chamber-music soundtrack, a harmony of strings perennially teetering towards kitsch, an ode to a lost England.
Edward Bennett as Berowne, Sam Alexander as Navarre, William Belchambers as Longaville and Tunji Kasim as Dumaine all impress, their transparent intellectual posturing and good-natured, boarding-school banter simultaneously endearing them to the audience and betraying their emotional immaturity. They are lost pyjama-clad boys, giddy with infatuation but still clinging to their teddy bears and safety blankets. Opposite them, Leah Whittaker’s Princess of France and her retinue are far more worldly, receiving the boys’ advances with a playful, knowing insouciance.
Elsewhere, Nick Haverson’s Costard is an entertainingly vulgar hunchback, straight from the dingy streets of Dickens’ London, and Stephen Pacey’s aggressively verbose Holofernes is entertainingly self-important. It’s John Hodgkinson’s flamboyant Don Armado that sticks in the memory most, though: a masterclass of over-acting, his Armado is a larger-than-life cross between Manuel from Fawlty Towers and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a garishly bedecked study in overwhelming emotion and hilarious mispronunciation. And Peter McGovern’s Moth is a perfect foil for him, a cherubic manservant with the voice of an angel.
Often, when directors choose to stage Shakespeare in an unexpected context, the result can feel arbitrary, gimmicky and cosmetic. Recently, one thinks of Deborah Warner’s needlessly Brechtian King Lear at the Old Vic, and the National’s inexplicably office-bound As You Like It. But Luscombe can breathe easily: his Edwardian reimagining of Love’s Labour’s Lost, with its subtle yet stirring nods towards the impending World War, makes perfect sense. It boasts a universally commendable cast, an evocative original score, and a sublimely opulent design, but its ultimate triumph is in its conceptual genius. Luscombe shines fresh, revealing light on the play, elegantly capturing both the humour and the hubris of Shakespeare’s syrupy battle-of-the-sexes.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is playing the Theatre Royal Haymarket until March 18.
Photo: Manuel Harlan