Love’s Labour’s Won Review

Much Ado About Nothing becomes Love’s Labour’s Won in the RSC’s 2015 production.

The argument for the renaming of Much Ado About Nothing as Love’s Labour’s Won so that it can be paired with Love’s Labour’s Lost is by no means entirely convincing. While it’s almost certain that the “lost” Shakespeare play was just an alternative name for one of the Bard’s other works, there’s no evidence other than proximity to suggest that it’s Much Ado About Nothing. On the other hand, as Greg Doran the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford notes in one of the extra features on this release, there’s nothing to prove that it isn’t either. If the RSC’s early 20th century updating and back-to-back readings of the plays with the same casts still don’t entirely convince that the works belong naturally together, the pairing does at least demonstrate that they are complementary and are capable of bringing out hidden depths in both works.

The case was already well made for setting Love’s Labour’s Lost in a kind of pre-WWI age of innocence. One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, the lack of refinement in the plot at least matched the youthful purity and fanciful ideals that the King of Navarre and his three fellow scholars, Berowne, Dumain and Longaville naively maintained about the nature of love and duty. The fact that there is no satisfactory resolution to Love’s Labour’s Lost, at least in terms of the guy getting the girl, the “follow-up” of Much Ado About Nothing as Love’s Labour’s Won at least brings about a nice symmetry of mood and resolution. Since Much Ado takes place in the aftermath of a war, that works very well with the concept and period selected here, but it does more than that. If Love’s Labour’s Lost is an idyllic age of innocence, Much Ado About Nothing as Love’s Labour’s Won, is set in a time when that innocence has been defiled, and the soldiers returning from the war are very different people from the ones who courageously took their ideals out to the world at the unresolved conclusion of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

This seems a bit of an extreme way to account for the cynicism that Beatrice and Benedick show for each other in what in the main is ostensibly a one-liner battle of wit between the sexes, but Much Ado About Nothing does indeed have a darker edge. Don John’s otherwise unaccountable evil nature could reasonably be a consequence of exposure to the unspeakable horrors of war and a realisation of the depths to which man is capable of sinking. Likewise, Claudio’s instantly falling in love with Hero, the daughter of Leonato, and his headlong rush to marriage could be another viable response to years spent at war, longing for love and stability, and not being willing to wait any length of time when experience has taught one not to make any immediate plans for the future. Both of these dramatic devices are permitted a little more credibility when seen in this light.

That could also be seen to account for the forced enmity between Beatrice and Benedick. Their response to the war falls between the extreme responses of Claudio and Don John. Beatrice and Benedick may once have been under some illusions about the nature of love that they have seen destroyed – Beatrice in this production appearing to have worked as a nurse during the war – or they might just have always been somewhat immaturely cynical about relationships. Certain ominous exchanges indicate that they have “known” each other before and been burnt by the experience. Over time, and with an intervening war, that seems to have festered, without the true nature of the feelings behind them being properly acknowledged. So much for characterisation. As Love’s Labour’s Won, these quirks of personality can certainly be made to work more convincingly, but there are other aspects of Much Ado About Nothing‘s plot development that require a little more of suspension of disbelief.

Those matters indeed are related to the credulity over Hero’s “death” and the forgiveness of (to put it mildly) the caddish behaviour of Claudio at the altar in response to Don John’s plot to discredit Hero’s maidenly purity. If the behaviour and dramatic contrivance still can’t quite convince a modern audience, the necessity of regarding the wrongs of the past as dead and being reborn in a conscious effort to move forward, does resonate between Hero’s experience and the post-WWI experience rather well. It does so too without imposing a false reading on the work, the more modern period setting rather bringing it closer to sentiments that a modern audience can understand. A contemporary setting might not work so well, but here, the formality of the character’s military backgrounds and the manners of the age make it fit exceptionally well with the solemnity of the declarations of the Shakespearean language.

All this can be worked out in theory, but put into practice on the stage, letting actors bring personality and interpretation to those roles in the context of live performance before an audience, the viability of the premise can really be seen in how it sparks into life. What is immediately noticeable is how well the winter/Christmas setting and the complementary musical arrangements (‘In the bleak Midwinter’ and a few original few Noel Coward-like song arrangements by composer Nigel Hess) work to give the play a vital and definable character, much more important than any actual period it is set in. The characters from Love’s Labour’s Lost don’t perhaps map across perfectly to Much Ado About Nothing, but the use of the same cast does at least invite comparison between the difference in how the nature of love is treated in each of the plays, and in how it offers a fuller view of the subject than each would on their own.

Individual performances also contribute to filling these roles with life and character. Edward Bennett manages to reveal the soft centre at the heart of Benedick’s posturing and banter. He’s not at all caddish, but sympathetic in his boyish charm. Michelle Terry again proves to be a perfect contrast as Beatrice, a true force of nature with a ferocious temperament, her exchanges with Benedick are wonderfully biting, making her turn around and falling in love all the more satisfying. I wonder whether she has done Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, as she would be perfect for a future production (RSC take note). Nick Haverson Dogberry has all the same mannerisms as his Costard in Love’s Labour’s Lost. He makes the Watch’s interrogation scene a piece of comic brilliance, but it’s more than just pantomime slapstick. In keeping with the slightly darker undertone in this production, his twitches and outbursts and malapropisms could easily be regarded as evidence of post-war shellshock, and Haverson elicits warm sympathy from a man often played as a complete fool or “An ass!”

As with Love’s Labour’s Lost Simon Higlett’s sets are again impressively designed and a wonder of technical stage-craft, the transformations pretty much seamless. It’s Nigel Hess’s music however that makes the biggest contribution to the production in Love’s Labour’s Won. More than just being period Noel Coward pastiche, the music accompanies and deepens the sentiments of Shakespeare’s verse for every mood. The choral arrangements are warmly melancholic, and even the joyous celebrations are tinged by an edge of sadness for the period and the season. It binds everything in the production together perfectly, giving this rather unique version of Much Ado About Nothing a purpose, a wholeness and greater depth than its outrageous romantic comedy situations would normally permit.

The RSC’s 2015 Love’s Labour’s Won (or Much Ado About Nothing) is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte as a companion piece for Love’s Labour’s Lost. Although it is evidently a complete play in its own right, it should best be appreciated in this production alongside its “prequel” 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 Won 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. The intended contrast between this and Love’s Labour’s Lost is immediately obvious. Whereas, the earlier, more “innocent” work had a bright English summer quality, this is a winter play with a colder edge. Much is done with the lighting to achieve this effect, and the video transfer copes beautifully to get that across on the screen. 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. If radio mics are used they are well concealed, and there are microphones or booms visible around the stage either, so however they capture the live performance, it’s very well done, the sound and dialogue being perfectly clear throughout. There’s a fair bit of echo in the wedding scene, but that’s what you would expect in a church. 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 so much an important part of the production. The live musical arrangements are wonderfully separated and distributed in the audio mixes. 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 further aspects of this production well, with another full Director’s Commentary by Christopher Luscombe. Greg Doran covers the complicated question of the “lost” Shakespeare play, and how there is a case for it being Much Ado About Nothing under another name, and talks about the complementary pairing of it with Love’s Labour’s Lost in a short featurette. Some Post-war Stills give an idea of the accuracy of research that went into the setting and the costumes. The Interview with Nigel Hess looks at how the composer writes for the theatre and his inspirations for the music in the two plays produced together here. There’s also a Cast Gallery on the disc. Michael Dobson’s essay in the enclosed booklet further explores the scholarly thought on Shakespeare’s lost play.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, and can’t help but be riotously funny. There is a slightly darker, more cynical tone to the work however, and that is brought out wonderfully not only in the performances and post-WWI setting here, but in the clever pairing of it with Love’s Labour’s Lost. No-one knows for sure if Love’s Labour’s Won was an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing but Christopher Luscombe’s production for the RSC certainly makes a good case for it. It’s more than just a clever idea however, the execution and coming together of all aspects of the production, from performances to the set design and the original music scores not only making a thoroughly convincing case for the pairing, but somehow bringing further depth, poignancy and humour out of both works. A huge success.


Updated: Sep 01, 2015

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Love's Labour's Won Review

A hugely successful reworking of Much Ado About Nothing in an impressive production at the RSC.

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