FringeReview UK 2018
Nick Bagnall directs an eight-strong cast. Designer Katie Sykes provides trunks and boxes to leap off or even descend through (in a symbolically deft moment) in a flurry of dresses over a Dutch chessboard floor. Memorable music – by James Fortune and performer Laura Moody. Wayne Parsons’ choreography ensures the workout’s thorough for all. Fight director Kevin McCurdy plays into the same ethos. The descent of James Russell’s candles is particularly integrated into the action.
Is Moth turned Tinkerbell? Ah no, Don Armado’s swallowed him up. If you know Love’s Labour’s Lost at all then you’ll see Nick Bagnall’s eight-strong cast has elided several parts and assigned one – Costard – to members of the company!
In the last of this season’s plays to broach the ‘dark Rosaline’ muse theme, we get re-invention; where the Globe plays Lloyd Malcolm’s inventive Emilia, the original perhaps of all these. You should see both. Curiously, Love’s Labour’s Lost is based uniquely on living people too, the future King of France Henry IV and named courtiers.
So the court of Navarre swearing celibacy is invaded by a prior engagement of Queen and ladies and things get broken. In this erection of fantastical artifice and sudden lurches into tragedy it’s the breakthrough to plain language of courtier Berowne – along with Rosaline the most acutely aware – that remains so heart-stopping.
As Harold Bloom puts it, we’re subjected to ‘an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers there are none.’ What Bagnall’s attempting is a filleted Love’s Labour’s Lost, reducing a sometimes indigestible feast to a slimmer’s exuberance, still a precious indoor thing for an outdoor play (it enjoyed court and Blackfriars revivals). After seeing it, you know this version could tour and win back audiences for Shakespeare’s furrow-browed comedy.
What remains here is an elfin storm from fairyland, a pitch of astonishing delicacy and detail, and the most memorable music – by James Fortune and performer Laura Moody – that I’ve ever heard in the Wanamaker, perhaps the Globe.
That might almost be an Elvis storm in Jos Vantlyer’s Renaissance rock-star Don Armado; save the Muscovites’ visitation (don’t worry if you don’t know them yet) renders ‘Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?’ in Russian instead. That gets the aisles singing. Wayne Parsons’ choreography ensures the workout’s thorough for all, yet somehow Vantyler wolfs down much of it – being two people furnishes an excellent excuse. Fight director Kevin McCurdy draws into the same circle though in truth energetic scraps break out all over, quite gently.
The opening’s more typical: rapt with its toybox themes and descent of James Russell’s candles whose agency is recruited as cast members light or snuff them at key points. It’s another twist to intimacy with space and audience (who naturally find cast members sitting next to them).
But it’s Kirsty Woodward’s pince-nez Princess of France fleeing her father’s sickbed for that prior engagement who starts symbolically with a single candle. This production environs the fireworks in a little black smoke, explaining how the end works backwards. Designer Katie Sykes provides trunks and boxes to leap off or even descend through (in a symbolically deft moment) in a flurry of dresses over a Dutch chessboard floor. We seem somewhere in 1675 with red, green and white dresses and pale blue mobcaps; then with the arrival of Navarre proper we’re in Napoleonic powder-blue uniforms. Oh never mind. It’s wondrously fetching.
Like some productions this two-hour-forty traffic dispenses with parts like Marcadé the messenger (words re-assigned to Boyet) and Constable Dull (Don Armado again). Somehow the miniature Forester’s role remains. More painfully one set of the four sets of lovers – Longaville and Maria – must vanish in such a reduced company, in a puff of editing.
That is a loss, the only one that jars, and editing hasn’t been thorough. When Berowne in 4:3 declares ‘I would not care a pin if the other three were in’ in his great prose monologue (significantly the only one) you realize it’s one too many for this production, and it happens once more straight after. That can be remedied.
There’s a fresh slant on the way this unfolds. Vantlyer’s Don Armado almost steals the show, particularly with his fluting duet with Moth, the now imaginary precocious boy. Tom Kanji’s Duamine is fine, but his bewigged and galleried then Bath chair Sir Nathaniel is even finer, and it seems he’s today’s Costard, romping with ‘remuneration’ and ‘guerdon’ as different payment for delivering the mail and still getting the generous and mean mixed up.
Kanji like most of this cast is no stranger to either Globe or RSC work, though as a rule their vocal projection’s still occasionally raw. It reminds one of the 2015-16 quartet of late Shakespeare Romances here where the same acoustic however supportive can expose this. Paul Stocker’s another strong performer as King of Navarre and Holofernes. Like Kanji, he’s particularly impressive when decrepit in wheeled-on wheelchairs. Stocker gets the callowness, Kanji the haplessness of their main roles, but their grumpy double-act is a delight.
Dharmesh Patel’s Berowne deepens as the comedy darkens, and by 4:3 and his great soliloquy he’s demonstrably in command. Again he makes a believably younger Berowne than some and action between himself, Stocker and Kanji comes across as deliciously undergraduate-earnest, for about five seconds before the fireworks.
It’s inspired casting for Boyet to become a woman, more conspiratorial, less fuddy and more fun: Charlotte Mills has the measure of practical cattiness, warm good sense and an astuteness beyond everyone, even if not on the exalted lines of Berowne and Rosaline.
Woodward suggests the derogatory girly-swot bespectacled student mixing callowness with a certain dignity and essential fright. We understand her fragile railing and gaiety, how easily she foresees its shattering. It fully prepares us and deepens her character. There’s a depth to Katherine too particularly when Leaphia Darko rails at Berowne for some prior skirmishing that had disastrous consequences. It’s a character you’d like to see more of.
Jade Williams, so strong in Chekhov and Gorky recently, plays a quick-witted, quick-feeling Rosaline who foresees pain in a different way to her Princess. Whilst the latter knows she’s running away from the inevitable, Rosaline knows she might be walking into it. There’s an alertness and fire-drawn wariness with Berowne, someone who’s her only equal but who might hurt her uniquely.
By contrast her Jaquenetta’s all earthy delight, pushing Vantlyer’s Don Armado down where the words won’t reach. Her comically orgasmic cries as he fires off verbal darts carry on as she scurries round the back of the Wanamaker entrance ways, whooping through windows.
There’s so much to delight in here that any foregoing caveats are to judge by the highest Wanamaker standards, and this production’s a fitting conclusion to the summer season.
If the heartbreaking RSC production invoking 1914 remains the greatest this century, this production adds elements we never thought on, and makes a play still too formidable for some, a comedy to enter the regular canon. Uneveness in tone – not quality exactly – is largely Shakespeare’s, and certainly the lack of a driven plot.
One thing this production does share with the RSC is its unforgettable music. Here too it’s integrated in a fairytale delight that ever palls, with an energy that pays its own homage to the manic verbal fizz of a writer who here, perhaps, can’t stop himself till he introduces the sudden twang of the denouement. It’s as if Shakespeare’s slapping himself in the face, or throwing cold water over his head.
Bagnall’s production is a necessary variation on how we see this play, and some criticisms aimed at it seem incomprehensible, There’s time to decide and you really should see this.