A double-bill of word-drunk comedies straddles the Great War and makes for a brilliant response by the Royal Shakespeare Company to this centenary year. In Love’s Labour’s Lost the King of Navarre and his three friends forswear women and retreat to the groves of academe. In Much About Nothing – known briefly in its stage history as “Love’s Labour’s Won” – Benedick and Beatrice resume their merry war of words in the aftermath of military conflict.
The plays are cast by director Christopher Luscombe from the same company, so that the skirmishing of Berowne and Rosaline in the first play is re-run, with darker overtones, and in more worldly fashion, by Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado. And in these roles, Edward Bennett (who deputised as an RSC Hamlet when David Tennant injured his back) and Michelle Terry win their colours in most glorious fashion.
Each comedy takes place on a country estate, so designer Simon Higlett has made a theatrical replica of nearby Charlecote Park, where the boy Shakespeare was reputed to have stolen a deer. A handsome red-brick façade, with towers and a cupola, is invaded by a stone courtyard, a bowls lawn, a snooker room and, predominantly in the first play, a handsomely appointed drawing room where the fantastical Don Armado (John Hodgkinson) and his page boy Moth (Peter McGovern) deliver an extravagant Edwardian love song that sounds like Ivor Novello.
Actually, Moth is labelled “a hall boy” in the programme, along with the footmen, the butler, housemaids, constabulary, schoolmasters and visiting aristocracy. It's no surprise, then, that the historical advisor on both plays is Alastair Bruce, the etiquette and military costume expert on television’s Downton Abbey. Luscombe’s RSC treatment of the plays is totally Downton, without the matriarchal stamp of Maggie Smith, but with a feast of fine comic acting in all other ranks.
One scene in Love’s Labour’s will enter the annals of all-time RSC highlights: Each of the nobles is caught out in their love-sick denials on the rooftop, their boyish awkwardness defined by the difficulty of hiding from each other on dangerous ledges, around the cupola, in their pyjamas, Tuni Kasim’s Dumaine even clutching a teddy bear. Finally, Bennett’s goofy but handsome Berowne delivers the great recantation speech – “Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves, or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths” – and the quartet leaps off the parapet into the void.
The second half of Love’s Labour’s features the “bearded Russians” and the masque of the Nine Worthies, with lanterns and quadrilles and the sombre announcement of the messenger Marcadé (Roderick Smith), segueing into the conditions of engagement, a life of servitude with the sick – “to move wild laughter in the throat of death” – which the male lovers take as a call to arms as the “Downton” community assemble in the shadows of the lawn.
Much Ado opens back on the estate, Beatrice and Hero (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) preparing an impromptu hospital ward in the house’s hallway and vestibule, a direct visual quotation for Downton. We move into the 1920s, with lilting song settings – the music of Nigel Hess, using some of his own from previous productions, and of Raymond Leppard from the 1950s, under the direction of John Woolf, is pre-eminent throughout – the soldiers in red guardsmen tunics.
The two outstanding comic character performances in Love’s Labour’s –David Horovitch’s pedantic, word-chewing Holofernes, and Hodgkinson’s florid Armado – are doubled with a stern Leonato and an imposingly militaristic Don Pedro in Much Ado. You can see what great fun the actors are having: Nick Haverson doubling the clown Costard with the comedy constable Dogberry, Emma Manton’s blooming Jacquenetta refining sweetly into Hero’s maid, Sam Alexander’s bumptious King of Navarre returning from the war severely wounded as the now comprehensibly malevolent Don John, a spiritual casualty of the horrors.
Some will find too much picturesqueness, too much sentimentality in Much Ado especially. I groaned inwardly at the sight of a large Christmas tree for Benedick’s gulling scene. But groans melted at the further sight of Bennett trying to hear what’s being said about him and getting electrocuted for his pains by fairy lights. At least George Clooney didn’t turn up, as he’s rumoured to be doing in the Downton Abbey Christmas special. And Terry’s delicious, skillful acting matches Bennett, and the mood of both plays, to perfection.