The four friends that depart for the Western Front at the end of Christopher Luscombe’s Edwardian reimagining of Love’s Labour’s Lost for the RSC, return in his twin production of Much Ado About Nothing. Except Berowne is now Benedick, Navarre is now Don John, boys are now men and girls are now women. It’s a remarkably simple, remarkably revealing deceit that shines a light on both the similarities and contrasts between the two comedies. Seen separately, Luscombe’s two productions are superb, chintzy and charming in equal measure. Seen together, they are quite stunning. A delectable mash-up of Midsomer Murders and Downton Abbey. And Shakespeare.
Where Love’s Labour’s Lost rang with the giddy bells of pre-war innocence, Much Ado About Nothing revels in festive respite. It’s Christmas, and our boys are back. The country manor – apparently inspired by Charlecote, near Stratford – to which Luscombe and designer Simon Higlett have transplanted the action is a haven of infatuated spirits and knavish high-jinx once again. Higlett’s design is still the plush, book-lined pile it was for Love’s Labour’s Lost, but here it is enlivened with the liberal application of tinsel. A bauble-bedecked tree stands resplendent in the corner. Nigel Hess’ score takes on a decidedly Christmassy vibe. One can almost taste the mince pies and mulled wine.
Edward Bennett’s Benedick is every inch as roguishly dapper as his Berowne, but it’s Lisa Dillon’s Beatrice that makes the show. Dillon infuses Beatrice’s sharp tongue and steely wit with a sardonic playfulness and bone-dry humour that coruscates, acid-like, all those around her. She is the dazzlingly intelligent jewel in the crown of Leonato’s court, who doesn’t so much submit to Benedick’s pigtail-tugging advances, as manipulate him into the palm of her hand. When she instructs him to turn on Claudio, she does so with icy calm.
They are supported, once again, by a cast as accomplished as one could wish for. Jon Hodgkinson tones it down as Don Pedro, but still maintains a veneer of bombastic joviality. Stephen Pacey’s aristocratic Leonato is superb, his geniality masking a feverish, ugly obsession with social status that rears its head in the stunningly staged wedding scene. Nick Haverson is again hilarious as a hopelessly doddery yet determinedly verbose local bobby-on-the-beat, riding his bicycle around the stage with worrisome difficulty. And Luscombe proves himself again a master of shifts in tone; when Haverson’s hapless PC is ridiculed one time too many, he rants with heart-breaking frustration against his tormentors. He is a makeshift Malvolio, notoriously abused, and the air is suddenly thick with class guilt.
These two productions will be remembered as masterpieces, and rightly so. For Luscombe has not just engineered two polished, richly mined comedies and cohered a twin set of brilliant performances, he has reimagined Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing with breath-taking clarity. Through his opulent, Edwardian lens, this double-bill is much more than the sum of its parts.
Much Ado About Nothing is playing the Theatre Royal Haymarket until March 18.
Photo: Manuel Harlan