By William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Tuesday 7th October 2008
Wow! Another production where we had to talk down our expectations to avoid disappointment, only to have all expectations completely blown away by a stunning production. Ignore the critics, this performance made almost every part of the dialogue intelligible, which is a major accomplishment.
As an appetiser to the main course, we went to a pre-show director’s talk. Greg Doran was as interesting as usual, and we learned a great deal about the production, including the slightly unsavoury information that a “dish clout” was a reference to a sanitary towel in Shakespeare’s day. In fact, this play is apparently full of the filthiest language and references of all the canon, which came as a surprise to me, as Will has never seemed shy of making a coarse or crude joke in most of his other work.
Apart from the filth, there’s a scene where Don Armado, Moth and Costard do some fancy stuff with language, and in the rehearsal process they realised that they were playing with the rhythms of speech, so it seemed natural to use rap as the modern equivalent. When we saw the scene, I have to say it worked well for me, although if anything it was on the short side to get the point across fully. The political position of Navarre within France, and the actual existence of several of the characters in the records of a battle, was touched on, although I’ve forgotten some of the details now.
The choice of Nina Sosanya was also mentioned, as there are many references to Rosaline’s complexion and colour in the text, and it was felt that only a black actress could really carry this part off. There was also a fair bit of information about the different levels of maturity of the men and the women, with the women coming out on top. The choice of costumes was also mentioned – this production has gone for Elizabethan, and very nice it looks too.
Now for the production itself. The set was bare except for the (almost inevitable) mirrored back wall and a massive tree, which spread its roots and branches wide across the stage towards the back. Long strands of vari-coloured glass leaves (more likely to be Perspex?) hung down over the stage, looking gorgeous, especially as we’d seen so much autumnal beauty on the drive up. The longer strands were raised at the beginning to allow the actors to get on the stage – why were they hung so low in the first place? – and it all looked beautiful. The bulk of both the French and Navarre courts were dressed in off-white, but Berowne and Rosaline wore significantly different clothes. Berowne was in fetching light blue doublet and hose, while the material of Rosaline’s dress had a lovely multi-coloured floral pattern on a deep blue background, which made the flowers glow when the light caught them. It was clear these were two outsiders, emphasised by David Tennant’s use of his native accent and the casting of Nina Sosanya as mentioned above.
The actors for the opening scene – the king’s would-be fellow students – arrived gradually before the actual start. Dumaine arrived first with a guitar or lute, and sat tuning and strumming for a bit, then Longaville joined him, and started nibbling at the remnants of their picnic which were strewn all over the blanket. Berowne also turned up ahead of time, but wasn’t so keen for company, so he just lay down to one side with his hat over his face and took a short nap. This allowed the king to burst onto the scene and wake him up by dropping the chest he was carrying, and almost bellowing “Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives…”, etc. (Yes, that is the opening line, and yes, I did have to look it up.) It was an excellent speech, which got across the braggadocio of the king and at least two of his lords. Berowne looked distinctly unimpressed by it all, and remarkably keen to ditch all the tough bits of the three years’ abstinence (fasting, no women, very little sleep, etc.), but he agrees to it at long last, and in this production they actually do sign a piece of paper.
Naturally, they’re all shocked to remember that the King of France’s daughter is arriving that very day to speak with the king, and given that, if he did so, he would have to “endure such public shame as the rest of the court can possibly devise”, the king grabs the quill back sharpish, and amends the article so he can get away with doing his kingly duty unscathed. The signed declaration is then pinned to the tree.
Dull arrives with Costard and a letter from Don Armado concerning Costard’s illicit canoodling with Jaquenetta. Dull, played by Ewen Cummins, was stolid and slow. An older Dull than some, he smoked a pipe, and was a noticeable presence, even though he spoke little. His later comment about not understanding a word of what was said got a good laugh, especially as the audience had been inundated with Latin and flowery prose for a good while before that.
The king and his cronies read out Don Armado’s preposterously worded letter with every sign of appreciation. They’re clearly a bunch of youthful, vigorous fops, with hardly a brain cell between them, and that one belonging to Berowne. The king shows a bit of anger with Costard when he ticks him off, which sets him up nicely for his own comeuppance later on.
Having heard his prose style, we now see the man and his page. Joe Dixon plays Don Armado, with Zoe Thorne as the page, Moth, and it’s a wonderfully comic pairing. She just about comes up to his waist, and has a cheeky impish face. With both of them dressed identically in lavish purple outfits, and pacing majestically onto the stage, page mimicking master, it was funny enough just seeing them. Then they got talking, and the dialogue became a bit difficult to follow, partly because Joe Dixon is using an extravagant Spanish accent for this role. However, the attitudes and responses still came across clearly. Moth was running rings round his master, who was in love with Jaquenetta.
At this point, Jaquenetta, Costard and Dull turn up, so Don Armado and Moth retreat to the tree. Jaquenetta is a busy girl – she has a milk churn with her, and sets it down so she can do a bit of churning. The way she plunged that handle up and down, and up and down, had more than Don Armado’s eyes bulging. He had to fan himself when he was talking to her, only it wasn’t his face that he was trying to cool down. After she leaves with Dull, and Costard and Moth have also left, Don Armado throws himself to the ground so he can kiss the patch of stage she walked over. This man is so far gone, he’s going to make the king and his men look sensible, and what would be the fun of that?
Now all we need is for the women to arrive, and so they do. The princess of France (she doesn’t appear to have a name) arrives with her servant, Boyet, and three of her women. While Boyet heads off to check what’s happening at court (they’ve heard of the king’s vow to avoid women for three years), the princess and her ladies discuss the other men who are with the king. All three ladies seem smitten with one or other of the king’s supporters, but the princess is unmoved. When the king himself arrives, she keeps her back to him, annoyed that she’s expected to stay out in the open instead of being given proper hospitality. It’s like being told to pitch a tent in Green Park instead of being invited into Buck House. They swap formalities for a short while, as the other men and women check each other out, and then the princess turns round, and bingo! They’re in love too.
While the king looks over a written note of the princess’s suit, Berowne tries to chat up Rosaline, and gets nowhere very fast. She’s not impressed, even though she seemed to fancy him, but these women know how to value themselves. Berowne may look a bit tasty, but she’s got to check out his other attributes (oh, do behave) before she can commit.
The king and princess aren’t able to resolve the issue of the return of Aquitaine immediately – they need some papers which are still in transit and will arrive tomorrow – so the king welcomes the princess and her entourage to the field, and heads off with his men. Despite the circumstances, the princess seems happier with her lodgings than she did earlier – I wonder what can have changed her mind? As she and her women retire to the tree, Boyet is summoned by each of the king’s follower’s to confirm what their eyes have already told them – the identity of each of the queen’s women. Shock, horror! These men are in love! And with the queen’s women! What will become of their vows now? They used the side and front entrances to the stage, with Dumaine and Longaville doing “psst” noises to attract Boyet’s attention, and Berowne snapping his fingers. Boyet, played by Mark Hadfield, did a masterful job of keeping a straight face during all this. I notice from my text that once the men have gone the ladies unmask, and this would make more sense of the questions. Here they were bare faced, and it made the men seem even stupider. So that’s alright then.
The next scene brings back Don Armado and his page. Don Armado is playing a guitar, and is so preoccupied with this and making a grand entrance, that he nearly walks into the long tree branch that sweeps across most of the stage. He steps neatly to one side, accompanied by Moth and our laughter, and continues to play. Moth has a small rattling instrument, and is clearly bored at having to play it every so often; he picks his nose while he’s waiting for his next turn. Don Armado sends Moth to fetch Costard, as he wants to use him as a postman, and on his arrival, with a nasty bruise on his shin, we get the rapping dialogue amongst Don Armado, Moth and Costard. This passed surprisingly quickly and pleasantly, and I even got some idea of what they were talking about – “l’envoy”, which, if I understand rightly, is, in effect, a punchline.
Don Armado gives Costard a letter to take to Jaquenetta, and a small amount of money for his trouble. Three farthings, in fact, which he refers to as a “remuneration”, although his accent turns the word inside out. Then Berowne turns up, and also gives Costard a letter, which he wants Costard to give to Rosaline. For this task, he pays Costard a “guerdon” (I’ve got nothing). The “guerdon” is apparently a shilling, and Costard makes his feelings vis-à-vis “remuneration” and “gardon” very clear before he exits, leaving the stage to Berowne. This is his chance to win us over, to make us feel for his desperate plight, his lovesick suffering. So what does he do? He insults all the ladies present by comparing us to “a German clock, still a-repairing, ever out of frame…”. David Tennant picked one lady in the audience to address these scurrilous comments to, but we knew he meant all of us. Mind you, she’s the one that got the wink at the end.
Knowing that Costard isn’t the brightest chap, and that he has two love letters to give to two different women, we can see comic possibilities a mile off. The good news is that we don’t have to wait that long, as the next scene gives us the pleasure of seeing Costard deliver Don Armado’s letter to the princess, believing her to be the correct recipient of it. Actually, she snatches it out of his hand, planning to embarrass Rosaline. Boyet reads it out, and the women react in a more scornful way to Don Armado’s flowery prose. It’s a nice contrast with the men’s responses in the earlier scene, and tells us all we need to know about the two groups. Men dumb, women smart. After some more word play, all leave, and we get to meet Holofernes, a schoolmaster, and Sir Nathaniel, a curate, both older gentlemen, and both somewhat grubby in the costume department. Dull is with them.
The princess and her women had been hunting deer before the previous scene, and now Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel are discussing the killing of a deer in that hunt. There’s a lot of quibbling about the precise terms to be used, and we get the impression of Holofernes as a real pedant, not as learned or as wise as he likes to think he is, but full of self importance nonetheless. Sir Nathaniel is more reasonable, but easily led, and in the company of Holofernes, always likely to be led astray. Dull says little, but does come out with some good Malapropisms, such as mangling “allusion” into “collusion” and “pollusion”.
Costard and Jaquenetta turn up, as she needs someone to read her the letter that Costard has brought her. Oops. Sir Nathaniel reads it out and we can hear that it’s of a much better quality than Don Armado’s. Holofernes is scathing about it however, at least when he’s not ogling Jaquenetta. It’s clear that when he “teaches boys the horn-book”, he has extensive experience of the subject, at least in his dreams. Anyway, Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel realise that, as the letter has been sent by Berowne, he’s in breach of his vow, and send Jaquenetta to the king to hand it over. Holofernes then undertakes, over dinner, to explain to Sir Nathaniel why the verses were very poor.
Now comes Will’s second best comedic scene of all the plays (number one for me is the ring scene at the end of The Merchant Of Venice, in case you’re interested). One by one the King and his men, starting with Berowne, arrive on stage to present their attempts at love poetry to us. As each arrives, the one on stage hides, until Berowne (up the tree), the king (behind some tree branches that conveniently dropped lower), and Longaville (behind the tree) are watching Dumaine bring on a very large book. It’s so big, it can conceal the small guitar (or similar instrument) he’s using to practise his love song. We’ve already established he’s the musician of the group, and soon he’s strumming away and singing a pretty little ditty, which the others join in. Then we get the series of denouncements, first by Longaville, then the king, and finally by Berowne, with each guilty party looking suitably abashed by their discovery. Only Berowne rampages unchallenged, lashing the others with his tongue, until Jaquenetta arrives bearing a letter which he immediately recognises. He tries to run away, but the king stops that manoeuvre. However, when the king asks Berowne to read the letter out, he grabs it and, tearing it up, stuffs as much as he can into his mouth to destroy the evidence. They gather the remaining pieces together, and discover enough damning evidence from those few fragments to force a confession from Berowne that he, too, is in love. Then follows some banter about Berowne’s love which contains a lot of the descriptions of Rosaline that led Greg Doran to cast a black actress in the part.
Although the railing has been good fun, now the lovers turn their attention to the serious business of how to get out of their vows. (Note that the option of keeping their vows doesn’t actually occur to them.) It’s Berowne’s job, as keeper of their collective brain cell, to resolve this problem, so the others leave the stage to him as they sit down across the front of it to hear his weighty verdict. In truth, it’s all flim-flam, but it’s what they want to hear, so he gets away with it. And as we want to see what they get up to next in pursuit of their loves, we’re happy too. Interval.
The second half starts with Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel after dinner, and very pleased with themselves, meeting up with Don Armado and his flotilla of Moth and Dull. Don Armado has been sent to arrange some entertainment for the visiting princess, and they decide to present the Nine Worthies later that day. The fun in this scene is firstly in the preposterous language, with Don Armado informing the somewhat horrified schoolmaster that the prince often played with his “excrement” with his fingers (meaning his moustaches), and secondly in the over-the-top performance of Joe Dixon as Don Armado. Again, I missed some of the language, but not much, and I found this scene much more entertaining than usual.
Now we get to see the princess and her entourage again. They’re sitting around on cushions, and checking out the gifts sent to them by the king and the other men. They compare notes, and the men don’t do too well out of it. Then Boyet arrives to inform them that he’s overheard the king and his crew planning a secret visit to the women they adore. Instead of turning up as themselves, they plan to arrive disguised as Russians. Boyet can hardly get the story out, he’s laughing so much. The princess decides they’ll play a trick themselves, and gets the women to swap gifts and hide their faces, which they do by lifting their skirts over their heads, like massive hoods. They certainly manage to conceal themselves, although it looks a bit cumbersome, and I wasn’t sure that the gifts were actually visible.
The men are dressed in Russian garb of Elizabethan times (apparently), and look absolutely ridiculous, with bulky coats and long beards. After a hilarious mock Russian dance routine that looked more like something the less gifted contestants on The Generation Game would do, they try to find the lady of their dreams by checking out the gifts they’ve sent, and of course Rosaline takes the lead, as she’s playing the princess. The wooing done, the Russians leave, and the women swap favours again, so that the men, returning without their disguises, will be fooled all the more.
When the men do turn up, the women make fun of them, as expected, and then Costard arrives to ask whether the Three Worthies can come on or not. They agree, and so the nobles take their seats to enjoy the pageant. Pompey does alright, but Alexander has a bad time of it, drying completely and having to be escorted off, and then Moth and Holofernes arrive as Judas Maccabeus and a young Hercules. Moth does the serpent strangling just fine, and wisely gets off stage before the heckling of Judas really gets into its stride. This is very like the heckling towards the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but here the men are seen as unpleasant, and the women are clearly not happy with their behaviour, although they do join in the teasing of Don Armado a short while later. He turns up as Hector, and is being hectored by the men, when Costard informs the company that Jaquenetta is pregnant, by Don Armado. When Costard challenges him, he refuses to remove his jacket as he has no shirt on, but he does have the “dish-clout” of Jaquenetta’s under his jacket, and this the men remove and start throwing around, with the women joining in.
This is becoming very unpleasant, and then the messenger from the French court arrives with the news of the King of France’s death, and the mood changes completely. The men are keen to get the ladies’ agreement to marriage before they head off, but the women are too smart for that. Once the new queen has set a task for her would-be husband, the others follow suit, and so the attempted wooing has been unsuccessful for this time. The play ends with a song, in praise of the owl and the cuckoo, sung by the Three Worthies cast, and then all leave the stage. Only Berowne and Rosaline linger on the two walkways, and see the owl flying around the stage – it’s a puppet worked by Samuel Dutton of Little Angel. It’s a haunting way to end this production. The play has such a strange change of mood at the end, and this finale sums it up perfectly, while allowing for the possibility that these lovers will get together after a year has passed. Or not, as the case may be.
This play is all about the language, and this production actually makes a lot of it understandable, which is no mean feat. The recognition of crudity in the language is not overdone, although the tampon tossing incident may not be to everyone’s taste, but the real joy is in the way the characters are brought to life and made entertaining while spouting some of the most difficult dialogue Will could devise, sonnets included. It’s a real treat, and we’re seeing it again (yippee!). Life is good.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me