It is an inspired choice to play Love’s Labour’s Lost set just before the war – the first world war in this instance – Â with Love’s Labour’s Won (better known as Much Ado About Nothing) set just after it, payed by Â the same cast and both directed by Christopher Luscombe.
Love’s Labour’s Won is the harder task. I don’t think I have ever completely believed or understood Claudio and Hero and I’m afraid I didn’t in this production either. The decision to play Benedick (Edward Bennett) and Beatrice (Michelle Terry) a bit younger than usual works particularly well, though. It’s not their last chance for love or marriage; they are genuinely attracted to each other; there is strong chemistry between them; they are also a bit edgy; they want to love but find it hard to commit: all very modern and appropriate. Their scenes together are a delight but, unlike in Love’s Labour’s Won there are a few set problems. Beatrice overhears Benedick from a balcony in the stage left tower but unfortunately can’t be seen by those in the high and low numbered seats. It’s pretty ridiculous for the RSC to sell Restricted View seats at all in a twenty-first century theatre, but it’s even more ridiculous to block in such a way that maybe a hundred extra people who are not supposed to have a restricted view can’t see what is going on. There is enough in the play itself (Claudio and Hero’s antics; the Dogberry stuff; the ‘villainy’ of Don John; the fact that Shakespeare tells rather than shows Hero’s ‘unfaithfulness’) which strains credibility without adding to audience members’ alienation. Too much action takes place upstage left.
The music is great. Several non-Shakespearian songs were interspersed and the inclusion of ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ was an inspired choice by Nigel Hess. Once again his music serves the play beautifully.
The usually dreary Dogberry business is very well handled because Nick Haverson is so funny, although I felt that the scene in his kitchen was TV sitcom farce. I enjoyed the acting itself rather than the effect. Leonato (David Horovitch) needed to hear Hamlet’s advice to the players. I was not convinced that it was Leonato who was sawing the air with his hands; I strongly suspected it was Horovitch.
As in Love’s Labour’s Won there is a lot of visual spectacle and variety: Benedick hiding in the Christmas tree; Dogberry’s kitchen; the great hall of Charlecote commandeered as a military hospital.
Luscombe tried to do something about Don John’s unconvincingness by giving him crutches and making him a casualty of the war. At the previews Sam Alexander didn’t look completely comfortable with them; no doubt this Â later developed into it looking as if Don John was not comfortable with them.
There is much to enjoy and many audience members greatly enjoyed the preponderance of farcical scenes. There is certainly a lot to be gained by seeing these two plays as a pair. If you come to see them make sure that you are not sitting in seats on the edges for Love’s Labour’s Won; if you do some of it might be lost.