Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Shakespeare

A-SH-Much Ado (RSC)“Much Ado” as a Sequel to “Love’s Labour’s Lost”!

When the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to  set  “Love’s Labour’s Lost” at the start of World War I (see my review on this site), they also decided to couple it with “Love’s Labour’s Won.” Er, yes. That title does show up in a list of Shakespeare’s works in 1598; and one can assume it is either a lost play or another name for a known one.

So with no evidence pro or con, they decided that “Much Ado About Nothing” was as good as any other and ran it with “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” setting it at the end of World War I at Christmas time. And since Berowne and Roseline in the earlier play are much like Benedick and Beatrice in “Much Ado,” they cast the same actors (Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry) as both couples. They are excellent, Terry being one of the strongest Beatrices I have seen. Now both plays are out on OpusArte DVDs, separately and as a boxed set.

While the production is quite good, I have two complaints. It has become a common fault in Shakespeare productions that the comedy is overdone. So while the rest of MAAN is a mixture of high but human comedy and serious situations, the scene in which Benedick is tricked into believing that Beatrice loves him is staged very cleverly but as pure farce. Again, the first scene with the town watch, headed by the malapropian Dogberry (Nick Haverson), is too slowly articulated (lest audience miss a single joke) and in their second appearance there is far too much pantomime.

There are a good many choral interludes, other than the one called for in the script at Hero’s tomb, and Christopher Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love” is heard twice. Arranger Nigel Hess explains things in a short interview in the bonus section. And there is an optional voiceover by Director Christopher Luscombe.

The serious parts are well played and believable: Leonato (David Horovitch), Antonio (Thomas Wheatley), and Don Pedro (John Hodgkinson). Sam Alexander makes a somewhat restrained villain as Don John, while Flora Spencer-Longhurst makes a sympathetic Hero. It is hard to make Claudio likable, since he so easily falls for Don John’s lies, but Tunji Kasim takes a good stab at a difficult role.

The scenery is solid and realistic, the changes working smoothly with the partial help of a rising section of the thrust stage. Even the Christmas tree is put to comic use, but in an over-the-top way.

I suggest that one see LLL first for obvious reasons. And thank you, OpusArte, for the subtitles!

Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Royal Shakespeare

A Superb Production of a Difficult Comedy 

A-SH-Love's Labour's Lost (RSC) “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (British spelling) is a most difficult play to perform today, because it makes fun of euphuism, a way of writing that was both popular and much derided in Shakespeare’s day. Satire is fine, if the audience is familiar with what is being satirized. There are many Latin and Latinate words and phrases in the dialogue, making modern comprehension even more difficult. And many of the comic characters seem just silly to us.

Despite all this, a performance of LLL on an OpusArte DVD, as it was given by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015, is not only the best production of that play but possibly of any Shakespeare play I have seen.

Set at the beginning of World War I, it tells the tale of the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and three of his friends—Longaville, Dumaine, and Berowne—who vow to devote themselves to study and not to have contact with women for three years. Naturally, four women—the Princess of France and her three friends, Maria, Katherine, and Rosaline—arrive to discuss political matters; and the men are smitten. So much for vows.

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Edward Bennett, who plays Berowne

Berowne is the most interesting of the men, cynical but just as much forsworn as his fellow scholars, and Edward Bennett makes him quite likable. His love Rosaline is played with an equally sharp tongue by Michelle Terry. (These two are the Beatrice and Benedict of “Much Ado About Nothing,” reviewed on this website.)

Among the whacky characters are Don Armado (John Hodgkinson), his servant Moth (Peter McGovern), a constable Dull (Chris McCalphy), a schoolmaster Holofernes (David Horovitch), and a curate Sir Nathaniel (Thomas Wheatley). The actors somehow make them human—and therefore funny. I feel that the Princess of Leah Whitaker lacks that command and elegance the role needs to distinguish her from the other three women.

Among the directorial triumphs is the scene in which each of the lovers overhears the others read love poetry to their sweethearts. Setting it on a small section of a roof works perfectly. So does presenting the pageant of the Nine Worthies as a musical in a Gilbert and Sullivan vein. (Some liberties are taken with the text, but no harm done.)

The mood change at the very end is beautifully done, and the lovely song about summer and winter is enhanced with additional lyrics about love.

The dialogue is read slowly and very clearly; and these DVDs have the added advantage of subtitles, which are pretty much essential for this play. The bonus material is, for a change, quite interesting.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is also on an OpusArte DVD with the alternate title of “Love’s Labour’s Won.” These two sets are available separately or together in a boxed set