Love’s Labour’s Lost Understudies – October 2014

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Guy Unsworth

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 24th October 2014

Our seats were much better for this performance – plum in the middle of the front stalls. Our view was excellent, and with the extra fun generated by the constraints of the Understudy run, this was a wonderful afternoon in the theatre. Nothing much to add to the lengthy description of the set in my previous notes, except that I spotted a telescope on a stand in the library, near the door back right. I also noticed a piece of paper attached to the wall beside the right tower door, and assumed it was the proclamation mentioned in the play. It disappeared later – didn’t see it being removed.

The Assistant Director came on for the usual pre-show chat. He wasn’t lit and the front part of the stage was rather gloomy, but we could hear him perfectly well and his introductory talk was very funny. He mentioned that the principal actors would be filling in during the run, wearing their own clothes, while the understudies would be in a varied assortment of full costume, part costume, etc.

Once he had cleared the stage, the darkness descended and we were off again. The King entered from the back and did a little typing, then launched into the explanation for their peculiar three-year retreat. I was very aware that the ‘achievement’ of keeping apart for three years to study would hardly rate a mention in the annals of heroic endeavours at the best of times, never mind when there was a major war about to happen.

Dumaine took some time to get the pen the right way round before signing the paper. The King, Dumaine and Longaville sat down to read around the time Berowne was detailing how he would study “to know the thing I am forbid to know”. Despite William Belchambers being about as tall as Edward Bennett, his Berowne had to jump over the sofa at the same point where the original merely stepped over it; even funnier when you’ve seen the main production.

Longaville readily admits in the text that he shaped the penalty for any woman coming within a mile of the court, and this production added a small acknowledgement by Dumaine that he was the deviser of the second item’s penalty – “such public shame as the rest of the court can possible devise”. Berowne paused before signing his name to the paper, and then made his claim to be “the last that will last keep his oath” – hah!

Dull and Costard came on while the men were sitting reading, and there was no polishing of boots or removal of shoes this time round, for good reason. Dull’s initial request – “Which is the…” – was quickly shushed, but eventually Berowne indicated the King. Dull presented the letter from Don Armado to the King, and Costard came into the room at some point to register his involvement in the matter. He hung his hat on the telescope – must check to see if that happens with the regular Costard – and rolled the ink blotter pad over his mouth when told to be silent. Given that he was forbidden to talk, Costard simply made a gleeful sound when they came to the conclusion of Don Armado’s long-winded description of Jaquenetta – “a woman”.

Given that Chris Nayak was playing both Costard and Don Armado in this understudy run, the changeover was good fun too. Costard had been wearing his apron over Don Armado’s purple outfit; he removed his apron and someone from the stage crew helped him on with the matching jacket. He was ready for the next scene within seconds, and we laughed when he collapsed onto the sofa with a big sigh, partly for the action itself but mainly in recognition of the transformation we’d just witnessed.

The scene with Moth went well. One item I forgot to note last time was that Moth showed Don Armado a piece of paper when they were discussing “the four complexions”. When Costard came on for the final section with Jaquenetta, Nick Haverson stood in for Costard, and this time I could see that Don Armado noticed Costard standing behind him after Jaquenetta waved, and wasn’t too happy at seeing him there. At the end of the scene, as with the main cast, Don Armado sat down at the desk and started to write, as the dialogue suggests, but it clearly wasn’t flowing at first as he crumpled up the first bit of paper and chucked it away as the room slid back.

The French contingent’s luggage was carried on by Ed Bennett and Sam Alexander, and this time we spotted a sign on the front door which said “No Women” – how rude. There were a few signs of affection between the King and the Princess during their conversation; I probably couldn’t see this last time because our view was so restricted. After the main action of the scene was over, Berowne appeared at the upper window again and gave a whistle, just as the ladies were leaving the stage; Rosaline turned around and waggled her fingers in acknowledgement.

In the next scene, Moth sang to the cushion, picked it up and danced with it and then collapsed onto the sofa at the end of the song, hugging the cushion, all very funny. After he replaced it on the sofa, he took out a duster and started cleaning various bits of furniture while he and Don Armado had another little chat. Don Armado took the duster to wipe his face at one point, which got a laugh, and when Moth referred to “a man after the old painting”, they both turned to look at an imaginary picture hanging on the (imaginary) left wall, folding their arms over their chests to illustrate the “arms crossed” mentioned in the dialogue. As Moth was heading out of the French windows at the back, following the bullet from a gun metaphor, Don Armado made a pistol shape with his hand and ‘shot’ him, while Moth added the “pyew” sound effect.

We heard Costard’s yell off stage before he came on, and this time I could see that he got the “l’envoi” joke, but carried on laughing at it after the others had finished. This Costard was, of course, the regular chap, and before Don Armado’s exit, Costard put his apron on Don Armado/Costard and took Don Armado’s jacket off with him, leaving the understudy Costard on stage with his “emolument”. (It’s much easier to follow on stage, trust me.) There was no opportunity for Costard to look round for the source of the music when Don Armado was talking about Jaquenetta, but he did include that bit of business when he was talking with Berowne, while Berowne copied the “arms crossed” posture during his little solo chat with the audience. While Ed Bennett had knelt behind the sofa to pray at the end of the scene, this Berowne sat on the sofa instead, and remained there as the room was drawn back.

At the start of the hunting scene, the Princess’ interest in the King was even more obvious in this performance. When the letter was read out, Rosaline was quite happy with the praise she thought she was receiving until the mention of King Cophetua; this puzzled everyone and so the error was discovered. The women had been carrying shotguns in preparation for the proposed hunting, suitably broken; when Rosaline answered Boyet’s question “And who is your deer?” with “If we choose by the horns, yourself come not near”, she closed her gun up in a threatening manner, ready to shoot.

The bowling match was rather different this time, with Holofernes actually hitting the jack (smattering of applause) and Sir Nathaniel being well off to the side; Dull was eating an apple all the while. The play on words worked well, and I found myself preferring this version of Holofernes. His complaints about Berowne’s poem came across as both fussy and funny.

Up on the roof, we had a much better view of all the hiding places. The King was deeply moved by his own verses, and even had to take out a hanky. He was about to drop the piece of paper over the parapet – “How shall she know my griefs? I’ll drop the paper” – when he heard a noise and hid behind the large stone ball. After Longaville’s poem, both the King and Berowne went “ahh”. When Dumaine came on with his teddy bear (don’t know if that was an understudy or not) he spent a few moments listening to the bear’s advice before setting it down on the King’s hiding place to be his audience. (I have no idea what the bear told him.) This Dumaine stood on the parapet to read his poem – don’t remember that from last night – and the King sniggered after the first few lines. Checking the text, I find that Berowne is meant to put in lots of asides; these were cut, up to the point where Dumaine says “O that I had my wish”.

After Longaville had revealed himself and the King had pounced on them both, the King took Dumaine’s teddy bear and tucked it under his arm as he paced the roof, giving the other two a good ticking off. At some point he removed it and threw it back to Dumaine, probably when he copied Dumaine’s appalling rhyme on “Jove for your love”. Berowne soon appeared and gave all three a tongue-lashing, as well as threatening to drop teddy over the parapet as before; this Dumaine was possibly even more panicked at the prospect. Costard’s arrival with Jaquenetta and the letter sent Berowne into hiding again, and even with our prime position it wasn’t clear that Berowne could actually tell who and what was coming. Even so, I reminded myself that Berowne had given his letter to Costard, and given his sanctimonious upbraiding of the others, he may have heard the soft fluttering of chickens coming home to roost. The final reconciliatory hugs were blocked by the cupola, and the pike at the top meant that they had to fiddle around a bit to do the handshakes. All good fun, and as they jumped into the darkness, we went into the interval feeling very happy with life.

We had seen a few empty seats after the interval last night – no such gaps today. Sir Nathaniel was reading a book this time – might have got this wrong in my notes for last night – and when Don Armado came on, he tickled Sir Nathaniel’s tummy during their greetings while Moth was munching on an apple. The word play went down very well, and for once I was very aware that this amateur group had only a few hours to put the Nine Worthies performance together – somewhat similar to the amount of time the RSC understudies themselves had to rehearse this performance. Dull (Peter Basham) did his little dance before leaving the stage, and then resumed his plodding disposition before walking off, which was very funny.

The ladies came on next, and were just as disparaging about their suitors’ gifts as last night. Boyet’s tale was severely edited from the full version, with no description of the men coaching Moth in his role. The ladies echoed the word “Russians” in unison, and then fell to planning their own little disguises to fool the men. With Oliver Lynes playing Dumaine in this scene, Peter McGovern had to fill in as Moth, and the song and following dance were even more enjoyable this time around as I was able to catch more detail.

After the men had each taken the woman they believed to be their love to one side, all four couples were arranged across the back of the stage, leaving the centre to Boyet for his lines about “the tongues of mocking wenches”. Following the departure of the Russians, Rosaline explained her plan to continue teasing them as the women walked up and down the grass; their dresses didn’t flick around so much this time, which wasn’t so funny but didn’t get in the way of the dialogue. On his return, the King accidentally used his Russian accent for the word “vouchsafe” in his opening lines to the Princess, a word which from the text I can see is used a lot in this scene.

Around this time someone in the audience had a bad fit of coughing, and chose to stay to inflict it on all of us. (I speak as someone who has left the auditorium a number of times when I’ve had a bad cough.) I felt sorry for the understudies, but perhaps it was useful as audiences aren’t renowned for silence these days, and it may have given them good practice in soldiering on in the future. The noise did spoil the scene a bit, but it died down around the time that the King found out he’d promised marriage to Rosaline.

With almost every character involved in the Nine Worthies pageant scene, the regular Don Armado appeared in the preliminaries, every principal member of the cast was on stage at some point or other, and we were treated to a special guest appearance – one matinee only – by the director himself! Not the assistant director mind, but Christopher Luscombe. He came on as Moth portraying Hercules, and threw himself around the stage as he wrestled with the snakes, even attacking some of the cast who were on stage; they seemed to be enjoying his antics as much as we were. The added fun for us was that we’d seen Christopher Luscombe playing Moth in a previous RSC production many years ago.

Hector’s song went down well again, and there was an added bit of humour when one of the red petals thrown over Hector (and Moth) stuck on Hector’s nose. Moth signalled to him and he brushed it off. Alexander forgot his lines again, and when the King ordered that he be taken off, the audience made its feelings known – “awww”. I noticed Thomas Wheatley, the regular Sir Nathaniel (and therefore also Alexander) standing at the back beside the piano and mouthing the lines along with the understudy.

Once Marcadé had brought his news, the pageant was quickly cleared away, and although the coughing started up again during the talk between the lords and ladies, this time it was quickly over. The various tasks having been set, Jaquenetta came on to start the final song, beginning with “Nightly sings the staring owl”. She found it hard to continue – the character, rather than the actress – and Moth stepped forward to help her. This opening section blended into Berowne’s poem “If love make me forsworn…” and eventually the King and his companions left the stage, while the rest of the cast joined in the song, forming themselves into a group towards the back of the stage. The men came back on in their soldiers’ uniforms, and this time I could only see the Red Cross armband on Berowne, though Steve reckoned there was another one on Dumaine’s arm as well. It was another moving finish to the play, and we gave them a tremendous reception at the end which they thoroughly deserved.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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