Summary, reproduced from RSC’s website:
Autumn 1918. A group of soldiers return from the trenches. The world-weary Benedick and his friend Claudio find themselves reacquainted with Beatrice and Hero. As memories of conflict give way to a life of parties and masked balls, Claudio and Hero fall madly, deeply in love, while Benedick and Beatrice reignite their own altogether more combative courtship.
Shakespeare’s comic romance plays out amidst the brittle high spirits of a post-war house party, as youthful passions run riot, lovers are deceived and happiness is threatened – before peace ultimately wins out.
Christopher Luscombe directs the second of Shakespeare’s matching pair of comedies that rejoice in our capacity to find love in the most unlikely places. Better known as Much Ado About Nothing, the play is performed under the title Love’s Labour’s Won, a name possibly attributed to it during Shakespeare’s lifetime
This is my favourite piece of theatre of the year so far, in fact I’m not even sure that Benedict’s Hamlet is going to top it and I can offer no higher praise. From the moment the first notes of what I now think of as the ‘Love’s Labour’s theme’ rang out across the still dark stage to the final, all singing, all dancing bow of the cast, I was transported to another era and completely wrapped in fully formed, funny, heart-warming, and somehow very real, other world.
Clearly Shakespeare had no inkling, in 1598, when he wrote the play, that three hundred and twenty years later, a war would be ending that had been fought in a way he could not possibly have imagined and yet his words could still fit around it, with more than passing congruence. In fact, the idea that both Don John and Dogberry were suffering from different manifestations of shell shock make their respective behaviours far more understandable to modern viewers of the play. For me, it made Nick Haverson’s portrayal of Dogberry quite difficult to watch, the thought of what he may have experienced during his time at war to generate such visible mental and physical effects making it almost impossible to find humour in certain scenes. Not that it affected everyone like there, there were people laughing whilst I was fighting not to cry, but for me, it added an element of realism that, whilst uncomfortable, raised the play to new heights.
I must, again, as I did for Love’s Labour’s Lost, praise the attention to detail shown by both costume and set designers in relation to all the elements of British Army paraphernalia. The country house hospital ward, in which the play started, was startling accurate to my eyes (down to the brief glimpse I got of the format of the patients charts) and the uniforms (combat, dress and those of the nurses) were accurate down to the last button.
In fact all the costumes were absolutely glorious and both I and my friend Cat were coveting Beatrice’s stunning purple trouser suit:
Again (I think I may be overusing the word) the music – composed by Nigel Hess – was sublime. The Love’s Labour’s theme was instantly recognisable but where as in Lost it was woven into stately and sedate compositions now it had a distinctly twenties feel. It had bounce, it had swing and it swept the play along. The decision to turn Balthasar into a Noel Coward-esque party guest – always ready to sing and play for entertainment – was inspired and made for some glorious moments:
I also have to commend both the choice of carol to open the second act with and the vocal arrangement of it. It gave me delicious shivers and made all the hairs on my arms stand up.
It is currently possible to buy CD’s of the music and speeches of both Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love Labour’s Won from the RSC website (link here – special price for the two – no, they’re not paying me toadvertise) and I have already purchased my copies because I have no resistance to such exquisite compositions.
The cast, the majority of whom were also in Love’s Labour’s Lost, did not disappoint. Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry (as Benedick and Beatrice) were utterly wonderful. Michelle’s Beatrice seemed to embody the very essence of the best sort of suffragette and Benedick was lovably goofy and yet serious enough to warrant Beatrice’s love. And I have to mention the moment when Benedick turned and gave an audience member a Look (and yes, it does deserve the capital letter) for laughing at his appalling singing of his appalling sonnet – it was genius but had to be unscripted – and every single thing little facial expression he gave during his gulling scene was spot on and hilarious. Flora Spencer-Longhurst (whose impassioned portrayal of Lavinia at the Globe – Titus Andronicus – actually manage to make me nearly faint*) completely captured Hero as I’ve always imagined her, outwardly ethereal but with a little steel right at her core.
However, as I’ve said above, it was actually Nick Haverson who really shone for me. I’d love to know what research he did to create his Dogberry; he nearly had me in tears by the end of scene where they cross-examined Conrad and Borachio. Considering I’ve never quite seen the point of Dogberry as a character before, this is quite something.
I don’t think there’s much more for me to say. I can’t find fault with it (other than that they didn’t immediately repeat the screening so I could watch it again) and I’m desperately hoping that the RSC puts both plays out of DVD. I can’t recommend it enough, so get thee to Stratford, and get thyself a ticket.
*I had to leave the yard after Lavinia scene after her tongue is cut out and then, whilst I was sitting on the bench outside the doors, she came round to do her entry through the crowd and was incredibly sweet to me, even offering me a taste of the rather delightful sugar syrup they use as fake blood.
All pictures from RSC website (Production Photos) and can be found here. No copyright infringement intended by reproducing them above.