By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Kahn
Company: Shakespeare Theatre Company
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Friday 18th August 2006
Hooray – another wonderful American production! First, the pre-show. The director, Michael Kahn and the composer, Adam Wernock, spoke with us for about 45 minutes on the creative processes that led to the production being as it is. That is, the director spoke, the composer mainly listened, and Carol Rutter, who chaired the whole thing, took much too long to put the questions. However, it was very informative. Kahn explained how the theatre had come about – the library it’s attached to had (and still has?) the biggest collection of Shakespeare folios in existence. They decided about 25/30 years ago to make use of a courtyard area for productions of the plays, and this proved so successful they had to expand. Unfortunately, the library wasn’t keen to be involved, and so at this point the citizens of Washington DC chipped in and contributed enough money to enable a theatre to be created within a run-down area of Washington that was being redeveloped. He commented that since most residents of Washington are transitory, politics being what it is, this was quite remarkable (but then Will has a habit of turning up trumps!).
From the second year or so, he was invited to be artistic director of the new theatre (although I’m not sure if he had such a grand title then). Since that time they’ve performed five Shakespeare plays each year, doing over twenty of them in all. They’ve also had strong links with the RSC, which has brought over its productions regularly. Sometimes these clashed, and after a while, the Americans stopped trying to compete, and just avoided doing the plays the RSC was bringing over.
Because of these links, Michael Boyd was keen to have the company over for the Complete Works Festival, and his only request was that they do a comedy. Apparently everyone was relieved when they chose Love’s Labour’s Lost, as no one else wanted to do it. Kahn had first seen the play many years before at the National, directed by Olivier, and was scared to find there were no laughs in it. As he was due to direct it, he re-read the piece, and developed a strong sense of the play as commenting on relationships between men and women, and particularly the way the men were becoming more feminine, while the women were very strong and kept trouncing the men easily. He likened it to the situation at that time, the 1960s; young men wearing robes, with long hair, going off to India to meditate and attempting to find spiritual enlightenment, while women were burning bras and discovering their strength and power. So he used a contemporary setting for his first production. Later in the talk he observed that any way of staging Shakespeare is valid as long as it serves to illuminate the text, and doesn’t simply hijack it for the director’s own purposes. (Here, here!)
For this production, he decided to return to the 60s setting, for two main reasons. Firstly, he was interested to see how it would work looking back over forty years, given our different awareness and understanding today. Secondly, because the setting still conveys much of the sense that Shakespeare was trying to get across with this play. Like most reflections or talks on Will’s work, he started by describing LLL as a very complex play (come on then, tell us which Shakespeare play isn’t complex?). The specific problems with this play are the lack of plot, and the incredibly rich language and word plays, much too obscure for most modern audience members to grasp. Shakespeare is just showing off how good he is with words (no argument there) but without the skills as a dramatist that he develops later, the play lacks the substance of other works such as Much Ado. Paradoxically, Kahn asserted that despite these difficulties, whenever LLL has been staged, it has been successful; the play seems to have some inbuilt attraction.
The composer got a few words in about this time. Because there’s so much poetry in the play – the would-be-lovers are always penning love sonnets – they decided to put them to music, so the composer had a lot of work to do, researching American bands of that time and choosing suitable tunes to match the rhythm of each verse. Some parts of the poem were used as a chorus, and when they realised all four actors were on stage at the end of the first half, with their instruments, they added a full blown musical number to round off the half (see below for effect). Although some of the actors had some experience with their instruments, none had enough for this, so they all had to work really hard to reach a good level of proficiency.
To the performance itself. What a treat! I tried to calm my expectations before we saw it, as the pre-show had made it sound really good, but I didn’t have to worry. We saw the set during the pre-show – Indian temple/palace, lots of vast pots with orange/yellow/red flowers, lavishly decorated pillars, a couple of seats and a couple of palm trees. The King of Navarre was translated into an Asian nobleman/king, bent on raising his spiritual awareness, and welcomed three American rock stars to join him in this three year retreat. They made the inevitable mistake of signing up to the celibacy thing just before Berowne reminded the King he’s got an imminent meeting with a woman, the King of France’s daughter, no less. How stupid are these guys, to forget a thing like that? Anyway, we had some fun seeing the King tell off Costard for consorting with a woman, knowing that he’s going to suffer for love himself before long. Costard was played as an American hippy which fitted well with the setting but didn’t get some aspects of his part across so well. Still he was good fun, especially the spliff-rolling and slogan chanting.
Don Armado was entertaining too, but even better was his little page, Moth. Often played by a boy actor, here he was played as an Indian servant by Nick Choksi, a young man, who was able to deliver the lines much more clearly and wring much more humour from the dialogue and the situation. Don Armado had a habit of throwing his arms wide and letting his fancy cane fly off in the process. One of Moth’s jobs was to catch this cane, and redeliver it on cue; he did this brilliantly, and I got a lot more out of this portrayal than I have before. I also found Don Armado more sympathetic. He came across as pompous, certainly, but there were more glimpses of his vulnerability, especially when his threadbare clothing was revealed beneath his coat before the duel.
The ladies arrived on Vespas, in pastel shades matching their outfits, Boyet riding pillion with one of the ladies. Their costumes were A-line dresses as short as you can get away with, knee-high boots, and their hair was a combination of 60s straight and 80s big. From the outset, these women were clearly more savvy than the men, which made the attempted wooing scenes all the more fun. One gem of this particular setting was when the wooers approached dressed as Russians. Since this was the 1960s, and they were pretending to be Russian, what better than putting them in space suits with helmets to disguise who they are? The men space-walked onto stage, slowly and ponderously, to the introduction from 2001. Brilliant.
But the highlight of the production was the poem-writing and discovery scene. As three of the men were musicians, naturally they were composing songs to their loves. This scene was marvellous, as the music brought the poetry to life. Longaville actually pushed his drum kit onto the stage for his rendition, and when Dumaine arrived, he threw a cover over himself and the drums. Then, as Dumaine started his ballad, the others joined in, Berowne up one of the palm trees on his guitar, Longaville on his drums, and the King, I think, had a tambourine or some such. Song done, each watcher revealed himself, and after a lengthy equivocation from Berowne to justify breaking their oaths, the first half closed with a song from the group + the King – a great way to end the act.
All the minor characters were good. For once I enjoyed the schoolteacher, Holofernes, and his accomplice, Sir Nathaniel. Holofernes looked somewhat dishevelled and the worse for wear, á la Sir Les Patterson. His conceit was set up very nicely, showing us how pretentious both he and Don Armado were. The nine Worthies part was the best I have seen. Dull, the policeman, was OK, though not up to the standard of the others, while Jaquenetta was stunning and danced provocatively at every opportunity. This was simply the best Love’s Labour’s Lost I have seen.
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me