In 2014, the RSC performed a trilogy of plays set before (Love’s Labour’s Lost), during (The Christmas Truce), and right after World War One (Much Ado About Nothing – review here), thus tying into the year’s centenary commemoration events. The two Shakespeare plays were presented as the Love’s Labour’s duology: Much Ado was retitled Love’s Labour’s Won (a controversial decision resulting in many confused people in the audience and furious debate among Shakespeare scholars), the majority of the cast performed in both plays, and both used the same setting: Charlecote Park, a grand country house and estate a few kilometres away from Stratford-upon-Avon where some say Shakespeare poached a deer and got arrested for it.
In the opening scene, the set designers have lovingly recreated Charlecote Park’s library down to the smallest detail, filling the stage with beautiful furniture, antique globes and telescopes, carpets, a fireplace… And then the entire set is rolled out and replaced with the patch of grass outdoors (including some not-so-subtle poppies in the background). And then that is rolled out and part of Charlecote’s roof rises up from below the stage, complete with smoking chimney. It is an extremely impressive bit of work, and every single detail is so realistic that we truly feel like we are there at the estate with the characters. The costumes, the styling, it all looks absolutely stunning… And very familiar.
During the break, I turned to one of my friends and said: “So, is it just me or does this look a lot like…” “Downton Abbey. Yes, definitely.” And once those two words had been uttered, there was no way to unsee it. The costumes, the setting, even the musical cues, absolutely everything reminded us of Downton Abbey. For days, our discussions of the play regularly featured the line “I’m sorry for bringing this up again, but on Downton Abbey…” The connection became even more explicit when, during the cast and crew Q&A after the show, one of the cast members told the audience that they had had lessons in 1914 etiquette from the same man who was an advisor on, you guessed it, Downton Abbey. Is this a good or a bad thing?
I would argue that the allusion really works for Love’s Labour’s Lost. First of all, this is a play that is all about verbal excess and artificiality, which is reflected in the cinematic quality of the production. On top of the elaborate sets and costumes, the play uses musical cues: when Berowne gives his friends the “when Love speaks” speech, the music swells like it’s an Oscar-nominated feature film. At one point, the music plays and Costard starts looking behind couches and underneath tables to see where this sudden mysterious violin tune is coming from.
Secondly, like Downton Abbey, there is a clear class divide between the royals and their servants, which works very well for a stately home like Charlecote. The costumes immediately make it clear who’s who in the social hierarchy: Costard walks around in rags, Moth in the costume of a footman. One could say that this more modern setting makes the use of the lower classes for comedic purposes slightly problematic. These are characters taken from a commedia dell’arte tradition of easy stereotypes, but these days we are much less likely simply to “laugh at the poor people.” However, personally I did not struggle with this at all; the cast did too good a job for me not to laugh at their jokes. In fact, I would say that this is easily the funniest production of Love’s Labour’s Lost I’ve seen to date. The play is positively dense with jokes that could easily go completely over the audience’s head, but here, everything works and much of that is thanks to the stellar cast.
Nick Haverson’s Costard is an incredibly likable and scruffy ball of energy, David Horovitch gets all the laughs as the pretentiously overpronouncing Holofernes, and you can tell that the Navarre boyband is having an absolute ball in the reading out of the love poetry scene. Tunji Kasim’s Dumaine is given a hairnet and teddy bear to really emphasise that he is the baby of the group and when Berowne grabs the bear from his hands, he completely loses it and starts screaming his head off, cracking up everyone in the audience as well as Edward Bennett, who was desperately struggling – and failing – to keep a straight face.
I want to praise Peter McGovern (Moth) and John Hodgkinson (Don Armado) in particular; they play off each other incredibly well and have great chemistry, to the point where some of my friends wondered if there was more than just playful banter going on between the Spaniard and his “tender juvenal” (it doesn’t help that Armado looks a lot like Oscar Wilde with his dandy moustache and purple suit). Either way, they are a great contrast both in age, class, and body language: Moth walks primly upright and skips across the stage like a ballet dancer, whereas Armado takes up a lot of space, draping himself over sofas and taking other people’s chairs. I was lucky enough to speak to John Hodgkinson the morning after the show and he explained how, the way they played it, these two characters are intellectual equals and each other’s only friends. It shows; they are a joy to watch and hit every laugh just right. In one scene, Moth is given a song and twirls around the room with a throw pillow in his arms while Armado provides music on the piano, smashing away at the keys like a flamboyant Beethoven. It is, in one word, delightful.
The play ends with a sudden shift from comedy to tragedy: the princess receives the news that her father has died and she goes back home. However, before she leaves, she and her friends tell the Navarre boyband that, if they are serious about their intentions, they will take a year to repent, work in a hospital, and so on. In this production, the messenger Makadé enters completely unnoticed. Amidst the chaos of all the fighting royals and servants, he suddenly appears in their midst to break up the party. Out of nowhere, reality sets in and suddenly it’s not so funny anymore; the music stops, we can see that Berowne is crying as he walks off-stage. In that moment, the world has changed irrevocably and there is no going back.
Director Christopher Luscombe had deliberately cut some other serious lines from the play (like the death of Katherine’s sister) so the contrast with the ending would be even greater. During the play-within-the-play, almost all of the royals’ banter and teasing is cut and suddenly there is nothing to distract us from Alexander’s words on fighting and conquering as triumphant trumpets play. The music clearly mimicks a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, but also brings propaganda to mind, a kind of nationalistic optimism on warfare that is smashed to pieces when the play suddenly grinds to a halt and a real war starts, one that would not turn out to be glorious at all and destroy such notions of heroism. The play is about the men of Navarre finally having to grow up, but Luscombe has taken the arc to a national level; the age of innocence has come to an end.
The characters start singing the song of spring, but are cut off when the men of Navarre march back on stage. The second we see them in their army uniforms, a shock goes through the audience. Even though I knew what was coming, I still gasped in horror. Seeing those uniforms and knowing what this means, where they are going and what will happen there, is like a slap in the face. Spring is well and truly over. War has come.
The final song is performed with the soldiers standing opposite the nation left behind, giving new poignancy to Armado’s final words as church bells ominously chime in the background: “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way.” I still get shivers just thinking about it.
This, to me, is making the most of a change of setting: it is not just a gimmick to put characters in different costumes, but actually enhances the themes already present in the story and takes them to a whole new level, creating something new and painfully beautiful.
What a show.