Love’s Labour’s Lost Review

Shakespeare’s early comedy is revitalised in the RSC’s uproariously funny Downton Abbey-style production.

One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Love’s Labour’s Lost has never been one of the Bard’s most well-known or performed works, but there are a number of reasons why it shouldn’t be entirely neglected. Principally, there’s much to admire in its use of language and dazzling wordplay, but its weak plot makes it’s rather harder to sustain interest in performance. As the learned academic Holofernes remarks at one point in the play in regard to Berowne’s effusive love letter declarations to Madelaine “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument“. In this, we have an equally good assessment of Love’s Labour’s Lost itself. The argument of the plot might not be able to sustain its over-ambitious flow of words, but there is nonetheless some of Shakespeare’s finest sentiments expressed here, particularly on the nature of love.

There are plenty of opportunities in Love’s Labour’s Lost for Shakespere to demonstrate his brilliance at putting man’s finer sentiments into the poetic form of the love sonnet. The King of Navarre and his three fellow scholars, Berowne, Dumain and Longaville vow to devote themselves to three years of study and learning, and there’s to be no distractions from the world’s material delights. Like ladies. They take an oath to this effect that lasts all about five minutes up to the point where the Princess of France and her three lady attendants arrive. Each of the men fall for their charms, secretly devoting their academic pondering to the wonders of love and beauty as it appears in the form of their beloved. Dramatic development of this idea doesn’t extend much beyond some playful disguises and mistaken identities, but much of the pleasures of Love’s Labour’s Lost comes, as is often the case, from matters incidental to the plot.

Aside from the beautiful turns of phrase and “as much love in rhyme as would be cramm’d up in a sheet of paper writ o’ both sides the leaf, margin and all“, much of the humour in the play derives from the secondary characters in their brush with the absurdities of the principals in their witless state of love. These include Armado, “A refined traveller of Spain” with a penchant to invariably pronounce English words in the rudest manner imaginable; Costard, a rude (in the vigorous rustic sense) gardener; Holofernes, a learned gentleman with a propensity to speak obscure references and puns in Latin; and Dull, a police constable who, as his name suggests, can’t really keep up with all the high-flown language and ideas that the others expound. It might be slight of plot then, but Love’s Labour’s Lost has much to admire in its dazzling language, its language of love and its colourful characters.

So much for the content. It’s clear that if Love’s Labour’s Lost is far from the depth, complexity and nuance of later Shakespeare works, there’s still plenty of challenge and opportunity for a director to enliven the proceedings in a manner that sets out its qualities in the best possible light. Kenneth Branagh’s attempt at making it a musical in his film adaptation didn’t quite come off as well as might have been hoped, and Christopher Luscombe’s 2015 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company also uses music – again, not always entirely convincingly. The production however has an other audacious and possibly opportunistic conceit in pairing Love’s Labour’s Lost with Much Ado About Nothing (renaming it Love’s Labour’s Won), and updating the works to the early 20th century.

If it seems a little opportunistic to set the two works in an English country manor that draws on the popularity of Downton Abbey, it’s a valid updating if it manages to give Love’s Labour’s Lost a context in which it works better. What actually gives it a little more weight and poignancy is the pairing of the work with Much Ado About Nothing – a much more complex and witty work about the nature of relationships – and by setting the two works on either side of the Great War. The retitling of Much Ado About Nothing is not without merit or justification either, since there is record of a Shakespeare writing a Love’s Labour’s Won, and it is believed to have been an alternative title for one of his other plays, Much Ado being the likeliest candidate. Whatever the truth might be, what matters more here is how well the pairing plays into the concept as a whole.

If the pre-war 1914 setting of Love’s Labour’s Lost lends itself well to the romantic ideals of its characters, Much Ado About Nothing (as Love’s Labour’s Won) works well as a post-war loss of innocence, presenting a rather more embittered, slightly more cynical, and certainly wider perspective on love. The conclusion of Love’s Labour’s Lost sets this up very well indeed, the King and his three friends having donned WWI military uniforms, displaying the same youthful vigor and idealistic enthusiasm with which they embarked upon their studies and their declarations of love at the beginning. The cleverness of the pairing of the two plays becomes more apparent here (if it doesn’t quite make the case for them being historically connected), the nature of the terrible war they are about to go into and knowledge that there will be a slightly darker tone in Much Ado About Nothing‘s comedy, poignantly suggests that their 12 month trial “to some forlorn and naked hermitage, remote from all the pleasures of the world” might be longer and more damaging of those ideals than they could possibly have imagined.

What contributes greatly to the success of this RSC production of Love’s Labour’s Lost even as a standalone piece – although further benefits are realised in pairing with Much Ado About Nothing – are the enthusiastic, humorous and utterly delightful performances. The characterisation is perfectly pitched to draw as much humour as can be derived from the playing of them and from the playing of the words. Edward Bennett does well to anchors some of the more high-flown absurdity in a more down-to-earth manner as Berowne. His verbal sparring with the rapier-like putdowns of Michelle Terry’s Rosaline bodes well for the two to be transformed into their counterparts of Benedick and Beatrice in ‘Love’s Labour’s Won’. Likewise Nick Haverson will establish a wonderful parallel between Costard here and Dogberry in the “sequel”, but even taking this performance on its own is an absolute riot of comic absurdity. He doesn’t so much steal every scene he’s in as much as set the level that the others have to rise to match. And they do so to such an extent that when you have Costard, Dull and Don Armado together in a scene, it’s sheer comic bedlam.

Mention should also be made of the extraordinary set design here by Simon Higlett. The English country mansion and landscapes are vital to the tone and the mood that Christopher Luscombe is striving to achieve. The manner in which the set is able to slip between detailed and highly realistic interiors of libraries and drawing rooms to exteriors of turrets, lawns and even rooftops in a matter of seconds is breathtaking, the lighting creating the perfect summer daytime and nighttime moods. It’s more than just a remarkable technical achievement – or even an opportunistic effort to capitalise on period-drama nostalgia – but very much an attempt to create a more innocent, idealised age that is recognisable to the audience, where such sentiments of bettering the world through dedication to the ideals of education and love seem truly possible. Those ideals are of course dashed by the experience of war, the consequences of which can be seen in the more cynical and worldly view of love and friendships of Much Ado About Nothing, where Love’s Labour’s must truly be fought for to be Won.

The RSC’s 2015 Love’s Labour’s Lost is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. Although it is a complete play in its own right, it should best be appreciated in this production alongside its “sequel” Love’s Labour’s Won, but the two parts are released separately. The Blu-ray disc is BD50, the transfer of the live HD broadcast is 1080/60p (as opposed to 24fps for a film) with an AVC encode. The BD is all-region compatible.

Opus Arte specialises in DVDs and Blu-rays of live productions of ballet, opera and drama. As with the previous releases of new live broadcasts of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I and II and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the quality of the High Definition transfer on Love’s Labour’s Lost is of an exceptionally high standard. The image quality is pristine on the Blu-ray release, the HD transfer handling the theatre conditions with the varying lighting conditions well. Primarily for this play, that’s a bright summery quality in the day and night time exteriors, with warm English drawing-room interiors. If it doesn’t look entirely naturalistic, it must be remembered that this is shot under theatrical lighting. The detail is terrific, the clarity impressive, and there are no evident issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing.

Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz/24-bit. The actors don’t appear to wear radio mics, as you might find on other live theatre recordings, particularly of opera. There are no microphones visible around the stage either, so even those are discreetly placed. The mixing of the performance is perfect, the emphasis being on the clarity of the spoken text, balancing it well with the musical score that is also very much an important part of the production. As a live performance, the audience are present and there is occasionally background noise, but nothing that intrudes in any way, other than to provide an authentic theatrical atmosphere.

Subtitles are in English only here. French and German subtitles were available on previous releases, but these appear to have been dropped. The font is white, bold and clear to read. The English subtitles have the full spoken text of the play.

The extra features cover the key aspects of this production well, with a full Director’s Commentary to go into detail on Greg Doran’s original idea for the pairing and setting and how it was developed by Christopher Luscombe. Some Edwardian Stills give an idea of the accuracy of research that went into the setting and the costumes, and an Interview with Simon Higlett reveals the real-life inspiration for the set and how it was ingeniously put onto the stage. The Language of Love’s Labour’s Lost is an opportunity for the cast to discuss their thoughts on the work and the characters. There’s also a Cast Gallery on the disc. Christopher Luscombe also contributes some thoughts on the production in the enclosed booklet.

With its ‘Downton Abbey’ meets ‘Brideshead Revisited’ setting, the true worth of one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays of youthful love and innocence is revealed in this 2015 Royal Shakespeare Company production. There is not only much to admire in its playful word-spinning enchantment, but there is much to be gained from recognising the brilliance of Love’s Labour’s Lost as a simply uproarious comedy; one that is not only worthy of being compared to Much Ado About Nothing, but worthy of being paired with it as well.


Updated: Sep 01, 2015

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Love's Labour's Lost Review

Shakespeare's early comedy is revitalised in the RSC's uproariously funny and inventive Downton Abbey-style production.

Love’s Labour’s Lost Review | The Digital Fix