“The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way”
Always a fan of a project, the RSC have paired up Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing – which they posit may have been once known as Love’s Labour’s Won – relocated the plays to an England either side of the First World War and let Christopher Luscombe loose at them with a single company, led by Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry. The RSC have hit on a cracker in uniting this pair, reuniting them in fact as they are RADA chums of old, with the wry looks and crackling tension between Berowne and Rosalind clear from the off.
A truly excellent comic actor, Bennett has the wonderful gift of always seeming on the verge of corpsing and for Berowne, it really works. The last to be co-opted into the King of Navarre’s aesthetic scheme of abstinence for him and three buddies, the first to point fingers when incriminating love poems start to appear once ladies arrive on the scene, Bennett shows us that this is a man well aware of the daftness of the enterprise he’s gotten swept up in. But he’s also an actor of much depth as he conveys the genuine sense of surprise that accompanies his own unexpected tumble head over heels and the crushing heartbreak of the play’s end.
Sam Alexander’s Navarre and Leah Whitaker’s Princess of France also stand out as the games of courtship between the men and her visiting court grow ever more convoluted, the delight on Whitaker’s face in particular as the men essay a visually striking Russian dance is a sight to behold. John Hodgkinson’s Don Armado teases out an amusing line of humour in the comic subplot (for there must always be a comic subplot), ably supported by the sweet voice of Peter McGovern’s Moth though I don’t there’s anything anyone could do to make me like Costard (Nick Haverson trying his hardest here).
Simon Higlett’s design makes great use of the RST’s capabilities to evoke distinctly different sections of the country pile that serves as the setting, the rooftop being a particular success, and the shebang trots along at a pretty pace, well under three hours. So a strong production full of likeable performances – Terry’s witty Rosalind is naturally up there too – and one which reaches its natural end with power and poignancy. There is then a coda woven into the play which, although it is undeniably extremely effective, left me a little ambivalent.
As it is the summer of 1914, the promises that the women demand of the men to return in “a year and a day” are unbearably loaded with sadness but Luscombe really emphasises the point by having the men return to the stage in uniform whilst a quietly stirring song – one of many from Nigel Hess – tugs artfully on the tearducts. If I’m being picky, I would have perhaps liked to have seen this grow more organically out of the production – there’s little allusion to the time period at all aside from the luscious costuming (supervised by Samantha Pickering) – but it is a moving finale, and one which is more fitting when Love’s Labour’s Won is taken into account too.