By William Shakespeare
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Date: Thursday 23rd October 2014
I was concerned during the early scenes of this performance that I wouldn’t enjoy myself half as much as I had for the previous RSC production (starring David Tennant, and, incidentally, with Edward Bennett as the King and Sam Alexander as Dumaine – both are promoted this time around). We sat by the left walkway a few rows back, and my sightlines were poor; the stage design and blocking meant that I had a great view of several actors’ backs and saw little of the early reactions and exchanges. Don Armado chose to lie down a lot on one or other of the various sofas, so it was hard to see his facial expressions, and the only glimpse I had of Jaquenetta’s face in her first scene was when she turned to give a flirtatious wave ‘goodbye’ to Costard. The dialogue wasn’t as clear as I would have liked either, so I was feeling a bit flat until about half-way through. After that, the comedy built beautifully and I was laughing loud and often until near the end of the evening when the tears started to come as well – more on that later.
Firstly, the set. The overall concept in pairing Love’s Labour’s Lost and a disguised Much Ado About Nothing (aka Love’s Labour’s Won) was to set them before and after the First World War. With this in mind, and with the Christmas show, The Christmas Truce, being about the Warwickshire regiment during WWI, the designer Simon Higlett finally settled on Charlecote Park as the ideal location for the two plays. Thus we were confronted before the start tonight with an interesting mixture of architectural styles; octagonal towers on either side at the rear of the thrust, done in Elizabethan brickwork, flanking a library with classical motifs and which contained several large dark portraits and plush Victorian furniture. It all suggested a stately country house to perfection.
The room was raised from the flagstones of the rest of the stage, and later on it slid back to reveal an immaculately manicured square of lawn in front of whatever area the scene required. For the arrival of the French princess and her entourage, the front door of the house descended; for the visit of the Russians, the ladies were on a terrace with a view through an archway; for the hunting and then the bowling match between Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel, there were a couple of bits of fence, some tufts of grass scattered with poppies (sniff) and a few trunks of birch trees. It was a very versatile set, and properly theatrical as well.
When the room came back on for later scenes, it had turned into the music room, with a piano and windows instead of bookcases, while the discovery scene was in a most unusual location (you’ll have to wait). It’s a long time since Steve and I visited Charlecote, so I can’t tell how accurate this representation is, but it worked brilliantly for this production. The costumes were all in period as well, naturally, even the teddy bear’s dressing gown (you still have to wait).
With the lights down, the King and his friends took their places for the start. Dumaine and Longaville were seated centrally on a chaise facing the back of the stage, while Berowne was in a chair in the front left corner, blocking my view of the others very nicely, thank you. The King was seated back left at a small table, where he plied a typewriter for a few moments, finishing off the agreement they were all about to sign. He came forward to explain what was going on, and was about to point to “Navarre” on the large globe at the front of the stage when he realised it was the wrong way round; he turned it so that Europe was right in front of him before continuing with his lines. An early laugh is always a good sign.
After the first three signed the piece of paper, they began to settle down on various sofas to read their books while Berowne had his little rant about how troublesome the whole project would be. However, when the king told him to leave, he changed his tune and signed up and then he reminded the king about the French princess’ visit – where was that information five minutes ago? Well, there was no help for it now, they’d have to find a way to go through with their vows and see the princess – don’t try to work it out, it’s only a comedy.
Dull and Costard came on through the courtyard (i.e. from the front left walkway) and while Costard took off his boots, Dull wiped the toe of each of his boots on the back of his trouser leg before setting foot in the room. His first words – “Which is the Duke…” – were shushed by the others, but Dull persisted and eventually got the King’s attention. Again, Berowne was keeping me from the delights of seeing Don Armado’s letter read out loud, along with Costard’s attempts to evade judgement, but from the laughter I suspect it was good fun. The dialogue had been edited so that the criticisms of Don Armado’s style were limited or non-existent; I was still not getting the full details at this point. Costard had a few moments to put his boots back on when he left with Berowne, as there were a few lines of dialogue to get through.
The next to enter the empty room was Don Armado, to much laughter. Dressed in a lilac suit, he had longish bouffant hair with a wispy Van Dyke, all in a light, slightly reddish colour. His foppish manner led to him collapsing on the nearest sofa, sighing in his hopeless passion for Jaquenetta. Moth was a young male servant, dressed in black, and when he was giving Don Armado the examples he asked for – of great men who fell in love – he took out various books from the shelves to read out the details, even showing Don Armado one of the pictures. Moth also had a quick look at the bookcases for the final example, of King Cophetua and the maid, but couldn’t see it there. At one point Don Armado offered Moth a sweet from a paper bag and took one himself – no idea how that fitted into the scene. For the final section, Jaquenetta was led across the front of the stage by Dull, while Costard stood next to Don Armado so that when Jaquenetta turned and waved at him, Don Armado thought he was the lucky recipient of her affection.
The room moved back after their departure to allow three servants to carry on suitcases and a trunk – the ladies had arrived. In fact, given that there were four of them and Boyet, those ‘few’ cases were likely to be their overnight things – the rest of the baggage was clearly arriving later. To the sound of pretty birdsong, the ladies glided onto the neat lawn carrying their parasols. Their meeting with the king and his friends went well enough (or badly enough, depending on your point of view) and there were a few signs that the king and the princess liked what they saw, but nothing as obvious as in the previous production (jaw-dropping love at first sight). I found that the banter between Berowne and Rosaline was just a bit too fast to hear clearly, which took away some of the humour for me. Later on, Berowne leaned out of one of the tower windows to ask Boyet who Rosaline was; Boyet was stationed in the middle of the lawn while the ladies clustered round the front of the stage, allowing Boyet to inform each of the eager young suitors the ladies’ names.
The piano room came back on after this scene. Don Armado was playing, while Moth rendered a love song in period style; Don Armado joined in from time to time. They used some of Shakespeare’s words for the song, but then went into more contemporary verses for the latter part. Moth picked up a cushion to dance with during these romantic sections, which was very funny. A chunk of the lines were cut, and Moth was soon explaining how Don Armado was “By heart and in heart” “And out of heart”. Don Armado was thrilled by the youth’s reasoning, and also by his metaphor of the quick lead bullet.
The “l’envoi” section was very well done, and for once I understood it completely. Costard’s shin clearly had a red welt on it, while his attempt at a “l’envoi” fell completely flat, as it was meant to. When Don Armado was telling him to take a letter to Jaquenetta, soft music came in to accompany his description of the beautiful lady, and we laughed as Costard looked round to see where the music was coming from. The same thing happened with Berowne in the following scene. He, Berowne, asked Costard to do a little task for him, and Costard kept agreeing and turning to leave, but Berowne kept bringing him back. Costard was spinning on the spot for quite a while before the letter was produced, and then the music came in again to accompany Berowne’s little rhapsody on Rosaline’s beauty. Again, Costard looked everywhere for the source of the sounds, and we laughed even more this time around.
Costard’s reactions to the “emolument” and “remuneration” were a delight. He copied Don Armado’s pronunciation of “emolument” wickedly – we were laughing just at that – and then his mistaken use of the word added to the fun. His discovery that a “remuneration” was significantly better than an “emolument” was also very funny, and by now I had warmed to the performance and was really beginning to enjoy myself – well done Costard. When Berowne was left on his own he did a bit more complaining, not all of which went down well – what is it with women and German clocks? – and he fell to his knees to pray just before the room was taken back again to allow us out into the open spaces for the hunt. (Spotted that Berowne was wearing a tie instead of a belt during this scene – don’t know when that started.)
The ladies came on dressed in the appropriate gear and carrying shotguns – safely broken. The Princess’ interest in the distant rider, possibly the king, was noticeable, and then the dialogue with the Forester went on a bit too long. Costard, accompanied by Jaquenetta, delivered the wrong letter and the queen was quick to take it from him, giving it to Boyet to read out loud. He launched straight into the contents, but realised part way through that the letter wasn’t for Rosaline, so we didn’t get the full awfulness of Don Armado’s literary style. This was probably why the women didn’t seem as contemptuous of the contents as we’ve seen before. Despite the letter not actually being for her, Rosaline tucked it in her pocket as the women left.
Holofernes, Sir Nathaniel and Dull came on next. Dull put a yellow ball towards the back of the lawn and then placed a folding stool a little way behind it and sat down to study his newspaper. This took some time, as he wasn’t the fastest mover. Meanwhile Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel had plenty of time to discuss whatever it was they were discussing. Oh yes, it was Holofernes’ ‘pretty’ conceit about the doe and the prickett. Sadly, this didn’t come across too well, partly because of the activity – if we can call it that – of Dull, but mainly because the vocal delivery wasn’t clear enough. Holofernes is a tricky character to establish quickly, with his pedantry and pickiness matched only by his wrongness; this will get better with time.
The bowling game also took some time to get under way, which was another distraction, albeit an enjoyable one. Holofernes took out his first bowl and kept shaping up as if to deliver it, then stood up again to continue his lengthy discourse. It was funny, of course, but it didn’t entirely help with the lines. His bowl went wide, while Sir Nathaniel, whose lines were very clear, managed a much better shot and was very close to the jack. Dull had apparently been doing the crossword, as his question – “What was month old…” – clearly related to something in the paper. Jaquenetta brought on a letter, this time the one from Berowne, and music played as Sir Nathaniel read it out, rather beautifully. With the discovery that it was Berowne’s letter, Jaquenetta was sent to deliver it to the king, and given how well Berowne’s verse had sounded when read out by Sir Nathaniel, Holofernes’ complaints about it seemed totally bizarre.
You’ve waited long enough – now for the teddy bear! I’d wondered where the discovery scene would take place – was the skimpy fire screen in the library a potential hiding place, for example – but I wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted us after the bowling match was cleared away. From under the stage there rose up a section of the roof, with a peaked cupola in the middle, chimneys back left and right, and a low parapet round the rest of it. A few gentle streams of smoke issued from various chimneys and an owl hooted; the rest of the stage was in darkness.
Berowne was already up there in his dressing gown, attempting to write another love poem for Rosaline; Orlando in As You Like It might not have been as skilful, but he was certainly more prolific. After laughing at his difficulties, we laughed even more when he spotted someone coming and desperately looked around for a hiding place; he settled for the back left chimneys.
The new arrival was the king, whose rendition of his own rather schmaltzy love poem for the princess had him in the very tears he made so much of in the verses. He took out his hanky at one point, to much laughter, and was just as startled as Berowne when he realised someone else was coming up to the roof. His choice of hiding place was unusual; he climbed over the low parapet and crouched down behind a large stone ball on one of the corners, just managing to cling on while staying hidden.
Longaville’s poem was all about his love being a goddess, and then he had to hide behind the right-hand chimneys when Dumaine came up the stairs to complete the set. Dumaine it was who clutched his teddy bear, and used it to represent his love as he declaimed his poem to the night sky. First, though, he expressed his views on Katherine’s beauty and declared “O that I had my wish”, which the others all echoed. There was enough noise for Dumaine to wonder what was going on, and to check that he was indeed alone he put the bear down and clapped his hands. The other three did a ‘Mexican’ echo which satisfied Dumaine, and he proceeded to stage two. He went to the stone ball which the king was hiding behind, and attempted to sit the teddy on top of it. Naturally it wouldn’t balance there, but to avoid being discovered, the king used one hand to hold the bear in place – much laughter. Satisfied that his audience was secure, Dumaine went to stand on the opposite parapet to read his sonnet aloud. The king was highly amused by the early lines, and began to laugh, stopping himself before he was discovered (or fell off the roof). The final couplet was even funnier, with “love” pronounced to rhyme with “Jove”.
Dumaine’s second wish – that the other three were also in love – was soon revealed to be already granted. Longaville leapt out from behind his chimney to take Dumaine to task, while the king made use of the teddy, which he was still holding, for his first line, which really startled the other two. While they stood on one side of the roof, he reprimanded them severely, picking up on the dreadful rhyme Dumaine had used by again pronouncing “love” to rhyme with “Jove” in “And Jove for your love…”. Unfortunately for the king he went a bit too far by invoking Berowne’s contempt for the other two; when the man himself jumped out from behind his chimney, the king was rightly embarrassed, and this time the three miscreants were lined up along the front parapet for the headmaster’s lecture.
Berowne was really getting into his stride when Dumaine rashly sniggered at some criticism of the king’s involvement. Quick as a flash, Berowne grabbed teddy and dangled him over the edge of the parapet – “Where lies thy grief, O tell me, good Dumaine” – and Dumaine went into a paroxysm of terror at the prospect of his beloved teddy being dropped to the ground! It was very funny, though I did have my own moment of concern for poor teddy, even though the roof was only a few inches above the stage level.
The arrival of Jaquenetta and Costard with Berowne’s letter put an end to his speechifying, and with the entrance relatively hidden from me, I wasn’t sure what he had seen to make him realise his comeuppance was coming up the stairs. He went to hide behind the chimney again, and although I couldn’t see all of what went on, he re-emerged for the king to give him the letter, which he tore up. The others managed to grab some of the bits; Longaville and Dumaine came over to the front to inspect some of these pieces, and saw enough there to trigger Berowne’s confession. With Costard and Jaquenetta leaving the “traitors” to it, the men were reconciled and went in for a round of hugs – the cupola got in the way of the last lot so it was just handshakes at the end. Berowne exercised his mind to overcoming their silly vows with some equally silly arguments, much edited. Then the men stood on the parapet, one on each side, and as they launched themselves into the air, the lights went out: interval.
When the performance resumed, the location was the lawn with archway behind. Two deck chairs sat on the lawn, and Sir Nathaniel and Holofernes took their places on them for their post-prandial chat. Dull was also there, sitting behind them again on his stool. Holofernes was resting after the meal – his paper was over his face – while Sir Nathaniel was reading his. Holofernes woke up fairly soon, and began his conversation with Sir Nathaniel, in which his ridicule of Don Armado for pronouncing words wrongly showed up his own misunderstanding of the matter.
Even so, when Don Armado turned up, to ask for their help in staging an entertainment for the Princess and her ladies, his greeting to them came out as “men of piss”, and there was a lot of humour in his use of the word “excrement”. Don Armado took Holofernes’ deck chair for a short while, and when they left to continue planning the “Nine Worthies” production, Dull’s response to Holofernes’ comment “Thou hast spoken no word all this while” got a huge laugh – “Nor understood none neither, sir”. Dull was the last to leave the stage, and did a little dance to the music that was playing to cover the scene change, also well received.
The ladies came on again in evening dress, and sat on a row of chairs along the terrace at the back, between the two towers. They showed each other the presents they’d received from the men; after Rosaline’s “he hath drawn my picture in his letter”, and the Princess’s question “Anything like?”, Rosaline showed the page to Katherine, who went “oh”, suggesting that Berowne’s skills didn’t lie with the pictorial arts. Maria, Longaville’s beloved, allowed his letter to unfold, to much laughter. It wasn’t “half a mile” long, but it was certainly a couple of feet. Personally, I could have done with the favours being a bit larger as well; they were quite hard to see, even from three rows back.
Boyet’s announcement that the King and his fellows would be turning up shortly caused great excitement with the women, but they hid it from Boyet, putting on serious faces when he turned round to look at them. They repeated that trick a little later, and then exchanged the favours they’d been sent and put on small silver half-masks to disguise themselves. When the men came on, they were dressed in Russian army uniforms and sported long ginger beards. Moth was with them, also done up in a Russian outfit – white top, black trousers, red sash – but without the facial hair, and Costard came along to play the balalaika. Instead of the little speech in the text, Moth sang a song and the men danced, in the Russian style but without any great skill. Towards the end of the dance, they lifted Moth up and held him horizontally before letting him down again. There was a lot of spinning, which made them dizzy, and the ladies stood watching all of this from the back of the stage. It was hilariously brilliant, and was followed by a masterstroke: when Boyet approached the “strangers” to ask “What would you with the Princess?”, he asked the question in Russian which none of the “Russians” knew, judging by their puzzled looks. They did try to put on Russian accents when they spoke English, and these were very funny too.
Boyet used mime to illustrate his words when he was asking about the measuring of a mile, another funny bit, and then the men each cut out the lady they supposed to be their love from the herd and went off for a bit of private conversation. That didn’t last long; the ‘Russians’ soon left, and after the women had ridiculed their suitors, Boyet pointed out that the King and his friends would be back soon. Rosaline had a cunning plan, and explained it to the Princess and the other two ladies as they walked up and down the lawn. The humour came from the way the ladies simultaneously flicked the trains of their dresses round each time they changed direction, though I did find that this distracted me a little from the dialogue.
When the men returned, the king accidentally used his atrocious Russian accent for a few early words, but fortunately the women didn’t seem to notice – phew! The women had changed the favours back again by now and removed the masks, so the men were supremely confident that they were close to success in their wooing. How wrong they were. Still taunting them, Rosaline and the Princess revealed that they knew the men had been playing the Russians, and showed that the men had each sworn to love the wrong woman. As Berowne explained what had happened, the women dangled their (correct) favours, and the whole sorry episode was only brought to an end by Costard’s arrival to ask if it was time to present the Nine Worthies pageant.
Lamps were brought on, a carpet laid, an upright piano placed back right and there were curtains over the back arch to make a proper stage out of the terrace. There was also a fiddler and may have been other musicians as well; I didn’t spot everything this time around. I did eventually spot the sign on the front of the piano – The Navarre Players.
First up was Costard playing Pompey the Great. He was wearing a ship, quite a long one (about four or five feet from prow to stern?) which had oars and a mast. It was big enough for Pompey to be sitting in it, if the pair of fake legs lying on the front deck were anything to go by. He sang a rollicking song using most of his speech from the text; it was a kind of G&S pastiche, and ruled out most of the heckling. Pompey threw his legs about a bit – the ones that were lying on the deck of the ship – and used the ship’s oars at one point. The rest of the Worthies’ ensemble brought out some sheets of blue cloth to represent water, and were waving them in front of and behind the ship, but their co-ordination wasn’t great and Pompey got caught up in them. For a rousing finish, the cast held three of these sheets up at the front of the stage, two blue and one white, and cunningly changed one of the blue ones to red, creating a tricolour for Pompey’s closing “sweet lass of France” – a nice touch.
Next up was Moth, in a costume which incorporated no less than two snakes twined around his body (to be honest, I saw this more clearly in the understudies’ run, but I thought I’d add in the detail here). His hands were in the snakes heads, and he writhed around on the ground for a bit before leaping to his feet, victorious. We may have had a little bit of Holofernes’ Judas Maccabeus – pay attention next time – but the next major attraction was Don Armado as Hector. He wore a breast plate and kilt, and sang a romantic ballad which the rest of the cast joined in. Moth had returned in a different costume and carrying a large rake, and towards the end of the song red petals were thrown over Hector – ahh. A flute had joined the fiddle and piano, and the whole piece sounded lovely.
With that done, Sir Nathaniel came on in a red toga with a fox fur draped over one shoulder, to represent Alexander the Great. He started another song – “When in the world I lived…”, another G&S-style effort – but lost the words and completed one line with “something, something, something”. The rest of the cast were lined up on either side, willing him to go on, but he was very upset by his failure to remember the words and was about to leave when the Princess called him back – “The conqueror is dismayed. Proceed, good Alexander”. He returned and gave it another go, and this time remembered it OK, and with the chorus joining in it was a rousing finish to the best Worthies section we’ve ever seen. When preparing for the next item, Costard made his accusation against Don Armado for getting Jaquenetta pregnant, and the fight that broke out was only stopped by the arrival of Marcadé, the sombre messenger.
The Princess quickly guessed what he had to say, and the Navarre Players immediately set about dismantling the set and clearing the stage, leaving the King, Princess and their followers to have their final scene together. Don Armado made his declaration “I will right myself like a soldier”, but as he hadn’t been humiliated by the exposure of Jaquenetta’s “dish-clout”, it seemed out of place. The men still pressed their suit to the ladies, though as usual I found Berowne’s complaint that they’d “neglected time, played foul play with our oaths”, etc. rather arrogant; nobody made them do these things, after all. Still, the women held them off, and set them the usual tasks. While Rosaline was tasking Berowne with making the sick laugh, the other three couples were at the back of the stage, and I found myself thinking, given this period setting, that not all of those men would be coming back to their loves, and so the sniffles began. They were heightened by realising that Berowne’s task would be doubly difficult, since he would be involved with the injured from the front lines, and would see life-changing sights regardless of the task she’d set him.
When their conversation was finished, the men at the back bowed to their ladies, who curtsied in reply, and then the men came forward for the closing lines of the scene – “That’s too long for a play” – before walking off. That was unusual, but then I realised what would be happening, and the next bit became a little blurry as a result (this keyboard seems to have gone out of focus a little as well).
Don Armado came back on to ask the women if they would like to hear a song, and they agreed, standing in the front corners by the walkways to listen along with Marcadé and Boyet. Jaquenetta came on alone at first to start the song off – a lovely voice – and then Moth joined in. They began with Shakespeare’s owl/cuckoo number, and segued into another ballad, this time using (I think) Berowne’s poem, a song about love making me forsworn. As the song came towards its end, the ladies and gentlemen at the front walked back onto the terrace. Jaquenetta knelt to the Princess, who lifted her up, and then the whole group joined in the final chorus.
As they sang, the King and his three companions marched back onto the front of the stage and stood there, lined up. They were now in military uniform, and Berowne and Dumaine were also wearing armbands with red crosses. The song stopped just before the final word, there was the beating of a drum, and then Don Armado said his final lines – “The words of Mercury…”. The four at the front marched off, the rest stood quite still, and to the sound of quiet music, the lights went down. It was a very moving experience, and we weren’t alone in our appreciation, as the applause was rampant once they came on to take their bows.
It wasn’t till I went through the text to write these notes that I realised just how much they’d edited and rearranged the text. Apart from Don Armado’s comment about redeeming himself, it worked seamlessly and brilliantly to give us a marvellous evening’s entertainment. We have already booked to see this one again (and the understudy run on Friday) and hope that a better view of the action will make it even more enjoyable. (And I’ll take plenty of hankies, just in case.)
© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me