Love’s Labours Won or Much Ado About Nothing- Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
*Hello. Spoilers for the production as usual with a Shakespeare play, it’s nearly 500 years old, you can’t get cross with me for spoiling the plot*
If I were to choose one word to sum up this new production of that lesser known Shakespeare play Love Labour’s Won, it would be charming. (It’s not a lesser known play at all, it’s one of his most famous Much Ado About Nothing but if you had a dim moment like me wherein I thought Love’s Labours Won was the play in that episode of Doctor Who with Shakespeare and the witches and eventually gets destroyed and therefore wasn’t a real play then this title can be confusing) Set in the autumn of 1918, just after the end of the First World War, in a beautiful recreation of a Warwickshire country house, Charlecote Park, this play fizzes with festive joy and bubbles with the celebratory atmosphere that came at the end of a really terrible four years of war.
The strength of any Much Ado About Nothing, I think, lies in the strength of its Beatrice and Benedick, the central sparring pair who epitomise the notion of being mean to someone because you fancy them. Both Michelle Terry and Edward Bennett are excellent and bounce off one another in the most charming way possible. They both bring a real sense of realism and the development of their characters’ relationship means that not only are the characters on stage rooting for them to get it on, so are the audience. Their final moments are immensely sweet, especially the very last moment of the play when, proud to the last, the couple check to see that no one is watching them before indulging in an embrace that made the audience go ‘aaaaaw.’ Edward Bennett makes an especially good Benedick as he has excellent comic timing and a very wry sense of play with the audience. His strongest scene by far is a masterclass in slapstick without becoming dreary and overly silly. It involves an altercation with a Christmas tree, being electrocuted (a clever idea brings a whole new meaning to a line about sparks) and a brilliant gag in which his hand is thrust through said Christmas tree in order to get a whisky top up. His Benedick is most certainly a merry man and one of the most memorable I have seen.
The post war setting is an extremely interesting artistic choice as it colours everything with a touch of melancholy and we are given the very real sense that the war has affected almost everybody. The prime example of this is Nick Haverson’s portrayal of Dogberry, a character who is such an idiot that he can border on being quite annoying. Of course, the malapropisms and slapstick comedy is all still there (there is a fantastic scene in which the accused and the night watch all attempt to manoeuvre themselves around a very small table and end up passing chairs over one another’s heads) and Dogberry remains a principally comic character. However the moment in which Conrad calls him an ass suddenly becomes poignant and full of hurt as Haverson sits down at the table and frustratedly tries to still his shaking hand, collapsing his head onto the table surface. The implication here is that Dogberry has returned from war with shell shock and his blundering and blethering may not entirely be his fault. It is a dynamic that is little seen in this character and a worthy addition in the light of the atrocities that the war caused. The evils of war stretch further into the portrayal of Don John by Sam Alexander as an injured man who now must carry a crutch wherever he goes. Although a self confessed villain, this disability evokes more sympathy with Don John as an audience can understand the rage and frustration that he may feel coming back from a war broken by it whilst his brother has returned hail and hearty.
Both the staging and the costumes contribute a huge amount to the magic and loveliness of the piece. Simon Higlett has devised a beautiful, slick set from which whole rooms and tombs emerge from the floor and churches and drawing rooms in and out of view. The most beautiful of all are the chapel, recreated with all the fine details down to the plaques on the wall which makes you forget just for a minute that the room isn’t whole and you aren’t in fact witnessing a wedding but are sitting in a theatre and Hero’s tomb that emerges from the ground, decked out in purple flowers, a moving tribute to a life taken far too early. The costumes are breath taking, my absolute favourite being Hero’s wedding dress and veil. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is truly an angelic vision in it which is particularly important given that she is accused of behaviour that is certainly less than angelic. I found it interesting too that Michelle Terry as Beatrice was dressed in a trouser suit and tie. It was still a feminine choice but moving with the times as women, who were well on their way to getting the vote at this point, began to step out of the home sphere and into lives of their own. It seemed appropriate for one of Shakespeare’s most forward thinking and strong female characters. The music is one of the strongest elements of the production, played throughout by a wonderful live band. It evokes the festive party atmosphere of the household, especially the almost jazzy version of Sigh No More. The second half opens with a spine tingling a cappella version of In The Bleak Midwinter with the cast in darkness holding lanterns, a moment so beautiful it made me slightly teary and also wishing that it was Christmas.
The play, however, is not without its weaknesses. For me, the scene in which Hero is accused of adultery at the altar of her wedding lacked the necessary power to really shock its audience. David Horovitch as Leonato is too monotoned in his delivery as a wronged father and we never really get the impression that he is as disgusted as his words would suggest with his only daughter’s behaviour. Tunji Kasam as Claudio too almost suffers from this but manages to pack an emotional punch by ramping up the anger and shouting just at the last minute. The scene which directly follows it, in which Benedick and Beatrice declare their love for one another is also not as strong as it could have been. Although Michelle Terry plays Beatrice’s grief with heart breaking beauty, for me the impact of the line ‘Kill Claudio” is lost because the preceding dialogue is played so seriously. For me, the scene works better when the love declaration is played for laughs as the force of such a brutal request contrasts with the happy feeling of before. In fact, the audience laughed at the line “Kill Claudio” which felt wrong as it is supposed to be an angry and emotional plea from a normally merry Beatrice.
Love’s Labours Won is a totally joyous night out and one which I would highly recommend in the run up to the festive period. It is full of laughs, tears, exploding Christmas trees and above all love. And if that isn’t worth a visit I’m not sure what is. Hey, nonny, nonny.