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RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing
RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing

RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing

13 January 2017 Emily Butler

This season, The Royal Shakespeare Company presents William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at The Theatre Haymarket. Either enjoyed together or separately, the plays are set at the beginning and conclusion of the First World War respectively and explore the nature of true love against an unsettled and traumatic backdrop, dealing with the effects of war on the cusp of the roaring 20s.

Director Christopher Luscombe’s Love’s Labour’s Lost has moved over a two-year period from its original home in Stratford to London via Chichester and grown as a production. “Live to Learn, Learn to Live” is inscribed upon the fireplace on the stage, respectably summing up the root nature of the paired plays. The set feels as if it melts into the architecture of the Royal Haymarket Theatre itself, the private boxes at stage left and right become glowing gateways to other rooms of the manor, creating an intimate atmosphere in which the auditorium contains the play, not merely the stage.

Placing Love’s Labour’s Lost in the golden summer of 1914 undoubtedly suits the disposition of the play’s unorthodox, sober ending in which romantic resolutions are adjourned for a “twelvemonth and a day” – so much so that as the young lords march in their uniforms to the sound of their loves singing a melancholy tune (‘So Well I Love Thee’), it becomes evident that they will be passing this probationary period on the Frontline, feasibly never to return.


Love's Labour's Lost, photo by Manuel Harlan

But it’s this ambivalent ending that gives weight to the second performance of the pair: Much Ado About Nothing, a play that that begins with its male characters coming home in 1918 after a successful effort in the war. It’s here that the audience can either decide whether the characters we grew attached to in Love’s Labour’s Lost may have survived or been less fortunate; the real ending of the play is up to those who become lost in its narrative and linger on the haunting images of war.

The Royal Shakespeare Company have created a seamless combination of two plays that share a fusion of humour with darker elements – Love’s Labour’s Lost encompasses the innocence felt in a pre-war era only to touch on how that youthful liberty can lead to delayed, and even missed, opportunities – teaching the audience to act before it’s too late. Luscombe draws attention to the boyish naivety of the male foursome who desire to shut themselves off from society, and in particular women (“Flat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth”) and one of whom, in the style of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead’s Revisited, holds a teddy-bear as his companion.

Alternatively, Much Ado About Nothing explores how people cope with the after-effects of the war with the realisation that love is worth whatever risks. It takes place during the Christmas festivities of 1918, with its disbanded soldiers anxious for some joyous relief.  In the opulent splendour of the manor house, the characters moved through striking rooms with oriental rugs, chaise lounges, an enormous Christmas tree (in which Benedick hid to extreme comic effect). The entire performance has remnants of the war intertwined within the words, the set (the drawing room has been summonsed as a military hospital) and the characterisation: it’s implied that Nick Haverson’s agitated gestures as constable Dogberry are the result of shell shock sustained in the war.


Much Ado About Nothing - photo by Manuel Harlan

The malevolence of Don John, played here by Sam Alexander, now seems to arise in part from his resentment at arriving home with a disabling war wound. This evident damage caused by the war lessens the typically ‘evil’ appearance given to the character and instead create a terribly tragic and sad edge to the cynic who has so been traumatised he is now devoid of real emotion. Alexander delivers his lines in such a quiet, closed off manner, so different to that of the classically ‘evil’ route, that you can envision the character jumping in reaction to the sound of a door slamming.

Undeniably, it’s the frustrating and so-very-human relationship between Beatrice and Benedick that lies at the heart of the play. Lisa Dillon’s Beatrice is a woman embracing the end of the war through her self-assertive humour but she also comes across as someone who is scared to be anything but that. Perhaps her time spent as a nurse during the war caring for the sick and wounded also exposed her to losses so great she vowed never to become dependent on someone who could leave her vulnerable, namely Signor Benedick.


Love's Labour's Lost - photo by Manuel Harlan

And so, the characters of Love’s Labour’s Lost ‘Live to Learn’ to face the realities of the world, ‘Learn to Live’ and accept love as something worth being vulnerable for. This double bill of Shakespeare is filled with joy and delight, in even the sadder moments. It’s easy to forget these have been considered as just two isolated comedies when there is so much set up between the two. Each play is a heart-warming wonder when watched separately, but when watched together they enhance the experience and deliver a richer appreciation of what Shakespeare so often sought to explain: what it means to truly love.

Love's Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 18 March, 2017, find out more here.

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