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Wednesday 12th November 2008
Theatre Review | LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST | Rose Theatre, Kingston

Peter Hall’s happy production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, bathes this wooden playhouse in a general sunshiney glow. Prop-free and bare of stage it does, however, leave the audience wide open and vulnerable to the kind of elaborate wordplay that so delighted the Elizabethans but can make a modern theatregoer feel like being pelted with twenty kinds of root vegetable. The Shakespearean fool often proves an endurance test to watch and this comedy gives us the full gallery of motley: the yokel fool – male and female varieties, the fantastick foreign fool, a double-act of pedagogue fools and his very favourite, the group of lovesick fools. Love’s Labour’s Lost, a send-up of verbosity, pomposity and the inanity of courtly love, can be a labour indeed.

So why did Peter Hall choose this play to be the first in-house production at the Rose? I have thought long and hard about it and I think the answer must be Peter Bowles. I think Hall wanted to clear the stage of all clutter leaving only the actors and some words and Peter Bowles, playing Don Armado, a fantastical Spaniard and, arguably, the most unintelligible character Shakespeare ever wrote, is a one-man vindication of this approach. He gives a sublime comic performance as a man who doesn’t consider himself to be funny at all, but is. Most comic performers can’t help colluding with their audience – ‘Watch me being funny’ they nudge. Bowles, though, is serious and slightly lost, adrift on his own barrage of words. It is a touching performance of great clarity.

Others, too, make remarkable sense of almost complete nonsense. The two schoolmasters, Holofernes (William Chubb) and Sir Nathaniel (Paul Bentall), characters that you feel Shakespeare shoe-horned into the play out of personal revenge at some Latin-spouting pedant of his own schooldays, with no bearing whatsoever on the plot, are actually funny. Chubb is like a creation of Alan Bennett’s at the Cambridge Footlights, in love with his own jokes.

These performances reveal that the answer to such excessive directorial simplicity – not just the lack of props or furniture but the total lack of invented stage business – is characterisation and this, of course, is far harder to achieve with those courtly young lovers, a somewhat amorphous bunch, whose labours are eventually lost. A wash of sunny colours tints the young men and women, making them too often indistinguishable from each other. They are not helped by having nothing to do but stand around on the wooden floor, bloated with words.

The King of Navarre and his acolytes have vowed to shun the world for three years, to be spent in contemplative study. A book, or even a nice clichéd pair of glasses might have helped persuade us that there was any seclusion at all for the visiting Princess of France and her ladies to disturb. And disturbance is the key, the reality about love that is at the heart of the play; that love is not a fencing match, or an elaborately made cake, but something that takes these self-absorbed young scholars by the throat and yanks them out into the sunshine.

There is no feeling of this in Hall’s production. Even the charismatic Finbar Lynch, a strong verse speaker, as Berowne, gives no sense of having been upended – the great French word ‘bouleversé’ – by love. There is too much commenting on the lines and not enough being transformed by the words themselves. A great line like ‘Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible Than are the tender horns of cockled snails’ – and how could Shakespeare not be great when it comes to love? – should be a discovery, not a description.

The Princess of France (Rachel Pickup, dipping about the stage in her Elizabethan skirts like a ship in breezy weather), and her ladies are all lovely and laughing mistresses of jibing banter, but just not differentiated enough. That is probably how Shakespeare wrote them but sometimes he needs some help.

William Shakespeare (whisper it) is not God; he can be wonderful but he can also be uneven, pedantic and downright boring – he likes to throw every ingredient he has into the melting pot, regardless of the recipe he is making. And then, just when you’ve had enough of the archaic banter and the jokes that aren’t funny, he gives you his very best song at the end of the play, sung beautifully by Ella Smith as Jaquenetta and the rest of the company – ‘When daisies pied and violets blue’. It’s the one with the roasted crabs hissing in the bowl and greasy Joan keeling the pot and it feels like a fabulous going-home present.

© Claire Ingrams 2008

  • Love's Labour's Lost runs at the Kingston Rose until 15 November 2008.

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