FringeReview UK 2016
In this RSC revival partly-recast production at Chichester, before its West End transfer, director Christopher Luscombe’s pairing Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing invokes similarities as well as photographic reversals. It’s very possible Much Ado is the missing Love’s Labours Won. Having the same cast play in the same simulated location on the eve of and end of World War One is grounded in Charlecote Park. Simon Higlett’s lovingly toy-sized simulacra with retracting inner room is a delight. Nigel Hess’s memorably hummable music evokes both early Ivor Novello (with a G&S scene) and later, Noel Coward.
Christopher Luscombe’s marriage of true like-minded plays brilliantly invokes similarities as well as photographic reversals in this revival of the 2014 RSC production now partly-recast at Chichester, before its West End transfer. It’s very possible Much Ado is the missing Love’s Labours Won. Having the same cast play in the same simulated location on the eve of and end of World War One is inspired, not least because Charlecote Park might be the place Shakespeare snaffled some deer. And there’s a deer hunt.
Simon Higlett’s lovingly toy-sized simulacra with retracting inner room is a delight. Nigel Hess’s memorably hummable music evokes both early Ivor Novello (with a G&S scene) and later, Noel Coward. Some might almost feel we’re drifting to a musical in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and given the quality, it seems director and composer strayed momentarily (in Berowne’s declaration). Its overall impact however literally underscores how touching, indeed devastating these productions are.
Summer 1914 dispatches the medieval land negotiations elegantly when they arrive, as the drawing room opening thrusts out. It’s exquisitely maintained for the most part by the sparring of Edward Bennett’s endearing but quicksilvery Berowne and Sam Alexander’s Navarre. Alexander pitches this perfectly between overweening pomp and boyish vulnerability. It’s an approach that works with Alexander’s donnish looks and manners, quite suspending the reflection that this could be a real ruler. Fealties are taken as badinage but real enough by Bennett’s gently truculent, soaringly eloquent and yet oath-bound writhings at silly conditions themselves soon burst by circumstance. Bennett’s Berowne is warm, generously playful to the faults of others and naturally hypocritical when it comes to exposing them.
Distinguishing the other two men can be challenging. William Belchambers’ Longaville is made eloquent too, donnish and sensitive, whilst Tunji Kassim’s boyish Dumaine is given the Sebastian Flyte treatment, replete with teddy bear that comes into its own on the roof of the building, a marvellous one-off set for the set scene where each would-be lover is exposed to the others, and the teddy bear’s antics (propped up by the unseen hand of the king) develops a life of its own and almost death as Dumaine shrieks thinking teddy’s pitched over the battlements. It certainly underlines innocence. Berowne’s great paean to love is bubbled under by the band which for some perhaps distracts slightly from the maturity and thoughtfulness of his character. It hardly registers; Bennett’s too mesmerising.
Leah Whitaker’s Princess strides with warm command and winning courtliness that snares and outwits Navarre’s clumsy intents, first to banish, then invite her. Whitaker’s princess extends just the right degree of licence to Rosaline, her chief wit here played by Lisa Dillon with a wary experience matching the sense that Berowne’s also older than his king. What she tones down in suppressed high spirits Dillon heightens in twinkling Edwardian elegance. Rebecca Collingwood’s Katharine and Paige Carter’s Maria are touched in with slight distinctions perhaps less marked than their beaux, but better than nearly anywhere else. Jamie Newall’s Boyette as chief advisor delights in a not-so-elder statesman’s agility and courtly legerdemain.
It’s the subplots however that motor this piece both as musical comedy and apotheosis in the Nine Worthies scene destined to be interrupted. John Hopkinson’s fantastical Don Armado courts absurdity but avoids burlesque in his knowingly preposterous sallies. He knows that like Moth, a wondrous boyish Novello-like turn by Pater McGovern he has to sing for his banquet. They form a duet grounding both characters as the most satisfying incarnations imaginable: indeed Moth’s new minted.
Don Armado’s mildly unpleasant side erupts in his dealing with Emma Manton’s pert Jaquenetta and arresting with bare-faced hypocrisy her would-be-lover Costard, here older than the Don but in Nick Haverson’s brilliantly hapless slapstick creation someone of who almost out-flourishes Don Armado. With Steven Pacey’s air-chalking Holofernes and John Arthur’s havering Curate allowed the sedentary pace of bowls, the panoply of characterful luxuriance unfolds – like As You Like It, it’s not a plot-compelled thing.
The other set pieces are more collaborative: a Russian dance with bearded Ballets-Russes lovers emulating the Bloomsbury set’s 1911 Albanian hoax on the Navy. And of course the Nine Worthies pageant, rather a grand affair. It’s not the Rude Mechanicals of the same year (1595) and better-founded (The Navarre Players no less). Whether they could rise to Hess’s delicious G&S is another matter and the various mishaps manage to convince us that though provisioned they’re not performers.
What interrupts however is a messenger of death, not unexpected perhaps but the bright summer shadows lengthen and the gravitas of the play with its shredding inconclusive last lines, is here managed in a way that has never perhaps proved so heart-stopping a conclusion to this early masterwork. We’re convinced finally after encounters between Berowne and Rosaline that more than tendresse and badinage exist: Dillon comes into her own when passing through the brightness of wit to vulnerability; her poised yet tremulous dispatch of Berowne shows Bennett’s response and rising to his task with a true sense of dedication. Alexander and Whitaker have similarly grown. The solemnity of love deferred is given an added twist with the now-famous return of the men in officers’ uniforms. It’s one of the great show-changing interpretations in Shakespeare and confirms this production as the most outstanding of this play for years. It has heart, plangency and not a little devastation. It also moves us to the other outstanding premise, its link with:
Love’s Labour’s Won, or Much Ado About Nothing. It’s December 1918, and instead of Sicilian sunlight we have a first winter of peace in the same house though despite parallels different characters. Here we start with uniforms and gradually cast them off, as we move to the Jazz Age through ragtime and in this production highlighting Bathalsar – Antonio’s shadowy son – as pop-up Coward-like entertainer.
If Dillon and Bennett still take the leads, here of Beatrice and Benedick, the others are beautifully spun so we don’t get one person playing two parsons as it were (and here Jamie Newall’s Friar Francis is decisive, protective and commanding). We begin in a hospital, the women in VAD nurses uniforms and an injured Don John (Sam Alexander) Navarre’s hauteur here turned to a nodal point of frustration (perhaps the injuries are more life-changing than we realise). Bennett’s purring warmth and comic éclat show him to just as much advantage as when ‘not born under a rhyming planet’ as when he was as Berowne’s inspired verse-speaker.
He possesses too a gravitas so that at the heart of the play – that moment of passionate recognition when he and Dillon finally declare their plain love for each other – both show their essential, painful depth. After the rejection of her cousin Hero – Rebecca Collingwood, given a more handsome part, by Tunji Kassim’s callow, fatally credulous Claudio – ‘Kill Claudio’ is only briefly parried; then engaged in earnest, sealed with a kiss of deadly passion torn from Beatrice as she runs back to Benedick. It’s also the point where Dillon flowers from her gritty dancing star to agonized warmth. The unspoken history between the two here undergoes a rebirth like opening a wound.
Whether it’s the bronzed dignity of Steven Pacey’s Leonato whose daughter is so abused by Don John’s aspersions, or John Hodgkinson’s grand-uncle-ish but twinkling Don Pedro, who throws down a downright marital challenge to Beatrice when she flirts with him, the older characters are sharply detailed. John Arthur’s Antonio has less to do but etches loyalty with a kind of pain.
High-spots come literally in the gulling of Benedick scene when hiding, swaying and electrocuted behind a Christmas tree Bennett lends new dimensions to the words ‘sparks’ in the text which naturally sparked laughter too.
But it’s the constabulary – Chris McAlphy’s Constable Dull briefly shone with headlamps in Love’s Labour’s Lost – who assume something like genius. Nick Haverson returns with the war about him: like Don John he’s been wounded, but shell-shocked. Suddenly his ultimately tragic character is explained in a run of twitches close to seizure. Here’s a man severely war-damaged and discharged to duties he comes at by circumlocution. Literally as when the malefactors Conrade (demoted William Bellchambers) and Chris Nayak’s Borachio are apprehended the only one of their number making sense is Peter McGovern’s lapidary, effective George Seacoal. The slapstick Keystone cops moments elicit the loudest applause of the evening as the company attempts to exit, then moves chairs and objects in a fruitless attempt at egress. Hodgkinson’s Dogberry’s briefly left alone, desolate.
This Hero with Collingwood shows some period dash of vim and at the crucial aborted wedding gives evidence of a woman who’ll know her own mind. She’s also more high-spirited, less drooping than some, worthy of her era and Beatrice’s friendship. Emma Manton’s Margaret is more detailed and given greater amplitude than usual, her essential innocence as unwitting bait in the conspiracy believably confirmed. Paige Carter’s thankless role as Ursula, Beatrice’s companion is likewise turned into a thing of natural warm obligation.
Resolutions are all as heartfelt as could be wished. With revelatory readings of Don John and Dogberry, and the visiting of arrested development in Kasim’s well-meaning Claudio wholly out of his depth because he cuts out Hero like a flat cardboard target, this production finally grounds the play in a post-war setting it’s long begged and certainly deserves. It is specifically a post-war play. Both the comedy’s malefaction and mischievous confusion, and hectic high spirits, are given the most truthful reading of recent years, perhaps longer. We feel we’ve permanently understood some characters in a way never before revealed. The finale shows another age and another music drifting in and the curtain-call has to be seen.