William Belchambers, Tunji Kasim, Edward Bennett, Sam Alexander in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
The RSC’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, speculatively paired with Much Ado About Nothing as a close relative or possibly a prequel, has eventually reached London three years after its Stratford debut. There it was very well received, but the production has lost something on its travels, not least Michelle Terry who received the best of the reviews for her Rosaline. Her replacement, Lisa Dillon, makes a classy pairing with Edward Bennett’s Berowne, the pair clearly limbering up for a more extensive chance at each other in Much Ado, but the play has somehow become predictable and a little charmless.
The thematic links between the two plays are relatively intriguing, but this is the only innovation on offer in Christopher Luscombe’s production. The set, a series of railway model replicas of Charlecote Park – the Tudor house outside Stratford-upon-Avon linked to Shakespeare via shaky folk legends – is pretty. The Edwardian country house party setting is cosy, bordering on the inane as Dumaine carries a Brideshead teddy bear around with him, a substitute for characterisation. The first half, setting up the temptation of the four cloistered nobles by the arrival of the Princess of France and her retinue, is slick. Bennett slides down the pitched Charlecote roof, bringing fleeting memories of Simon Russell Beale’s tubby King of Navarre flailing up a small hill in Terry Hands’ 1990 production. John Hodgkinson’s remarkable Spanish accent makes Don Armado the star of the word play scenes, well matched with Stephen Pacey’s admirably clear intolerable pedant, Holofernes.
Then the play fizzles out, partly because Shakespeare had not yet worked out how to resolve a situation. There is comedy of sorts (nobles badly disguised as Russians) and the pagenat of the Nine Worthies, as proto-mechanicals fill stage time and amuse the court with their antics. Luscombe presents this via a series of under-heated musical numbers, during which both dramatic tension and the will to live rapidly seep away. It is too late to rescue the ending, where the mood is famously darkened by a messenger bearing bad news. Luscombe’s production, having failed to introduce any tone other than jollity, tries to rescue the situation in the final moments as the four nobles suddenly appear in First World War uniform, ready for a war from which they may not return. The effect seems irrelevant, with no mention of war in the script, and gratuitous, tacked to create a marketing-friendly First World War link, rather than integrated as part of a convincing reading.
The other problem is the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Viewed from the tiny seats and vertiginous heights of the gallery, the stage is a very long way off. It seems almost fraudulent for the RSC to transfer productions from the rebuilt, extra intimate Royal Shakespeare Theatre to the Victorian dinosaur auditoriums of the West End The only logic is box office-based, but audiences are still cursing Adrian Noble’s disastrous decision to give up the perfect sightlines of the Barbican for such inferior spaces. It is as though the National Theatre was still based at the Old Vic. The RSC’s dramatic energy ebbs rapidly away in unforgiving spaces such as these, leaving behind entertainment but little else.