Perhaps not traditional garb for Shakespeare's comedy but it all ads to the fun with Eric Stroud as Longaville, Luke Thompson as Berowne, Abiola Owokoniran as Ferdinand and Brandon Bassir as Dumaine. Pictures: Johan Persson

Love’s Labour’s Lost

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre.



The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, being the renowned repository of Shakespeare's plays, to its credit still pays proper attention to the Bard's least often performed stageworks. King John (which unfashionably I rate highly) recently; All's Well that Ends Well last season; The Two Gentlemen of Verona shortly to come. They have even given credence to the disputed, or collaborated, Edward III.

This season two such largely neglected plays figure. Pericles opens at the Swan in July and runs to September. And the rare comedy they are attacking at present (till 18 May) is Love's Labours Lost, which last appeared first in Gregory Doran's 2008 staging, and then in another version a decade ago, in 2014. Even the greatest of them all, John Barton, gave it an airing almost half a century ago.

Some - not least John Masefield in his detailed exploration Shakespeare (1911) - have argued this may be Shakespeare's first play (1589-92). But he and indeed all others argue that a version, reworked - or more likely its first appearance - dates from the mid-1590s, and coincides with his emergent great period with Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and the Dream.

The basic story is quickly told. Four characters, a King (Ferdinand of Navarre, in northern Spain but originally independent of it) and three of his courtiers elect to eschew female company (actually not abnormal, something of a students' tradition) and concentrate on their (as it were, University) studies. Their plan is intruded on by the arrival of a French princess, with (surprise, surprise) three of her lady attendants. Needless to say the noble chaps each fall in love. Hence the dilemma. 


In plain view - Eric Stroud as Longaville, Brandon Bassir as Dumaine, Luke Thompson as Berowne and Abiola Owokoniran as Ferdinand

It's a play full of laughs, and Director Emily Burns determines to prise as much from it as she can. If there's a reservation - and there need not be - it might be that the hyperactivity could be judged to eclipse, intermittently divert attention from, some of the (admittedly very wordy) text - a bit more like some of Shakespeare's contemporaries' plays, perhaps. The foursome, adjudged by some to be 'fairly colourless' in character, which can scarcely be claimed here, make up for this by loads of stage business. Actually, it mostly works.

Ferdinand, the King (Abiola Owokoniran) is strongly cast and though besotted himself maintains a curbing role preventing his acolytes going wholly over the top. The main noble aide, Berowne (Luke Thompson) is the most rational of the three, and his admirable speaking (the wonderful late speech to Rosaline: "Here stand I, lady; dart thy skill at me; Bruise me with scorn, confound me with a flout; Cut me to pieces with thy keen conceit...") plus several finely-turned soliloquies as well - were, as they should be, among the best features of this busy production. Dumaine (Brandon Bassir) is the prettiest, the most influenceable, and perhaps (attired in shorts) the youngest. Eric Stroud's Longaville is the most stolid of the team: more French than Hispanic or Basque names.

The commanding Princess (Melanie Joyce-Bermudes) and her escorts, although smaller roles apart from this articulate, at times challenging leading light (whose exchanges with Berowne have about them something of Beatrice and Benedict trysting and teasing), are equally expressive. Some of their eye-catching arrivals, astutely directed, had almost a dance-like quality, with Amy Griffiths (Katherine) usually the kind of group leader.

But the delightful star of their ensemble is their coaxing, forever concentrating, nursing shepherd, Boyet. Suited like a chauffeur, acting a bit like a busy, attentive concierge, occasionally panicky, and sometimes to be seen steering a beach buggy (the girls appropriate it and prove adroit drivers), and used quite a lot frontstaged, Jordan Metcalfe was not alone in periodically some extent eclipsing the main trio (or quartet). His fussiness was a delight; his anxieties evoked out sympathy; he was a clever creation, both restrained and fretful. It was an uplift every time he appeared onstage.


Ioanna Kimbook as Rosaline

The comic (some call it) sub-plot features the usually nose in the air, jumped-up (here perhaps aptly show-off) aristocrat Don Adriano de Armado (Jack Bardoe). His near-naked flauntings, or fondness for glaring, look-at-me scarlet, spoof-Hispanic (or Navarraise) antics bemuse, or are suffered, by a particularly well-played boy page, Moth: "My tender Hoovenal" (Iskander Eaton), who provides an utter (welcome) contrast to his exhausting, flouncing master, while coming up with some of the most pithy lines of the play. Bardoe insuppressible, Eaton almost wise and reflective, a kind of paradoxical pair who never fail to entertain when they appear.

Both are seen at Stratford for the first time. Indeed it's noteworthy that almost ninety percent of the cast are making their RSC debut, which makes Burns' achievement in drawing such a range of business from them, all admirably pulled off even if, as mentioned, a bit OTT, the more creditable and inventive. Joanna Scotcher's set is impressively lordly, even if its circular swing seems pure bonus rather than expressly relevant.  

Her costumes are, mostly, beautifully thought out and enticing (the now weedy Armado's crazy, Greek outfit just one of a feast). The brief beach scene (popular, as it happens, in Opera too - compare the Royal Opera's Cosi fan tutte) looked both economical and good. Indeed the visuals as a whole added handsomely to the whole, and Neil Austin's Lighting, restrained, carefully chosen, when it altered and adjusted (to blue, e.g., betimes pink, or scarlet for a delightful Masque sequence) tellingly apt. Ben McQuigg's musical septet a pleasure each time it spoke, with cast vocals added almost spilling over into something like Orthodox chant. 

A pleasant surprise was Jeffrey Chekai, who understudied and on this occasion took over the role of the 'Constable', Dull, sometimes flopped knackered, at others bouncing into a kind of inept action. A case of the understudy surely living up to the original. But Nathan Foad (another newcomer) dazzled in the role of Costard. He's the clown, and his mischievous, irrepressible clownings felt always close to the text - indeed. A big performance: nobody could stop him.

As well as Armado's gymnastic stretchings, Burns brings tennis, boxing - Germaine, who is forever punching the air (when not playing a dog) and golf into the mêlée. It's Rosaline (Ioanna Kimbook) who proffers her golfing skills (much joking about audience threatened by a powerful drive); when the last golf ball disappears down a wee circular hole in the fairway it's a hoot.

But my favourite character, and surely the finest speaker of the lot, was Tony Gardner's Latin-powered Holofernes. The most experienced of the team, and the philosopher (schoolmaster) of the play, he tries to bang common sense into the entire ensemble, and has no need of shenanigans to present the sanest character of all. Straightforward, incisive, perceptive (of Armado: "He is too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd, as it were, too peregrinate...He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument"). Actually one wonders if this can really allude to Bardoe's Spaniard (Navarrais?). For Armado needs to be pompous ("The posterior of the day), know-it-all, yes, showy, yet the very opposite of athletic.

It's good entertainment, and the audience loved it. As I did, up to a degree.

Roderic Dunnett


Index page RSC Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre