‘Sweet smoke of rhetoric’: a review of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the RSC

by Chloe Cheung

Readers are advised that this review makes details of the plot and production explicit.

Not even Stewart Lee makes me laugh as much as I did at Christopher Luscombe’s new production of Love’s Labour’s Lost for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Hailed as ‘sparklingly funny’ (The Times) and brimming with ‘continual comic verve’ (The Daily Telegraph), this production certainly had high expectations to live up to. And unlike some plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost delivers on the hype.

In a refreshingly original twist, the RSC is running parallel performances of Love’s Labour’s Lost and its better-known counterpart Love’s Labour’s Won, which is more commonly titled Much Ado About Nothing. This is the first time that the plays have been linked in this way.

Set in 1914 against the milieu of a quintessentially English Summer, the play follows the various exploits of Ferdinand, King of Navarre, and his companions Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, who swear an oath not to have any contact with women during a three-year period of study and fasting. However, upon the arrival of the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting, who are on a diplomatic embassy, their resolve is tested to the limit. The play’s light-hearted spirit is undercut by an unexpected tragedy and the departure of the Princess and her ladies; little do the characters know that the Great War is about to change their lives irrevocably.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a laugh-out-loud farce that also revels in punning, which is brought to life by the outstanding actors. Luscombe has taken this raw material and has fashioned it into an absolutely exquisite production. It is wholly egregious in our modern age that every constituent part of the play, as is the case with all RSC productions, is ‘Made in Stratford-upon-Avon’ by a dedicated team of in-house craftspeople.

 “It really has to be seen to be believed”

Of all the stunning parts of the production, designer Simon Higlett’s set is the real showstopper. In the opening stages, it resembles the lavish study of a rich, well-read gentleman. To herald the arrival of the Princess of France, however, the study regresses and the handsome exterior of an English country house emerges, with a perfectly manicured lawn neatly comprising the foreground of the stage. For the hilarious confrontation scene between the King and his companions, the gables of the house rise out of the lawn area from the underbelly of the stage. It really has to be seen to be believed.

The spectacular costumes come a close second to the breath taking set. The ladies are attired in beautifully crafted silk dresses. Glittering beaded shawls complete their outfits, complementing the sparklingly witty dialogue. The gentlemen too are sartorially on point in immaculate suits. These costumes capture the essence of the Edwardian zeitgeist, and the heady delights of an English Summer. Costuming also contributes to the play’s acceleration towards its conclusion: the male characters’ change into army uniform further highlights the sudden sombreness of the King and his men making preparations for war, accompanied by the rhythmic beating of a military drum heralding the onset of the First World War.

Finally, few words may do justice to the glorious pomp of the original score composed by Nigel Hess. The music in the play elevates it even further to dizzying heights. Never distracting us from the main action, it nevertheless enhances our overall theatrical experience. It is a wonderful addition to the production, especially seeing that there is continual reference to music throughout Shakespeare’s plays.

“It was a visionary move to pair up these two delightful Shakespearean comedies”

All of these individually stunning elements come together in a crescendo of the very best that professional theatre has to offer. Love’s Labour’s Lost has, rather unfairly, been overshadowed by other Shakespearean comedies, and has been seen as containing too many rhetorical flounces to make the successful transition from page to stage. This RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost may well redress this misconception.

It was a visionary move to pair up these two delightful Shakespearean comedies, and if the sheer enchantment of Love’s Labour’s Lost is anything to set store by, audiences are in for a real treat with Love’s Labour’s Won as well.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won are showing at the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 14 March. BP 16 – 25 £5 tickets are available for each performance; enter the promotional code 1625 when buying tickets online, or call the box office on 0844 800 1114.  

The plays are also being broadcast in cinemas nationwide. LLL is showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Jericho live on 11 February and there is an encore screening on 15 February. LLW is premiering at the Phoenix live on 4 March and there is an encore screening on 8 March.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Tom Davy, Joanna Engle and Chris Hill

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