Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Bronwyn Barnwell, at The Shakespeare Institute, February 2019
Reviewed by Sara Marie Westh
There is a part of Love’s Labour’s Lost I never liked. It is not the ending – I rather like that no one gets off easy. It is not the weird Russian masquerade either – it is pleasingly grotesque to me. It is not the subplots – they flesh out village life, and help make the world of the play more believable if not more likeable. The bit I have never warmed to is the play within the play – the Nine Worthies. My dislike does not spring from the way the passage spins out the final half of the play, and it works well as a device for ramping up the holiday mood before the exclamation point of sudden death walks on stage.
No, my problem with the Nine Worthies is that I never manage to move past my pity for the performers. Every time a noble interrupts the players I cringe to the marrow of my bones. The scene is an almost perfect parallel to the play within the play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but in Love’s Labour’s Lost the whole thing somehow feels far more brutal. Maybe it is the silences that are left hanging as characters are shunted off-stage by their jeering audience.
On the other hand, it is surely a proof of successful production that a relatively minor passage – a passage entirely void of character development and with no impact on the narrative – can have such powerful impact on me.
The Shakespeare Institute Players’ production of Love’s Labour’s Lost managed exactly this. As Holofernes (Lucia Deyi) was mocked and sent off, my toes curled in second-hand mortification, and as Nathaniel (Cherry Flett) was interrupted and flustered, the back of my throat dried in sympathy. I felt nothing but relief as the messenger of death, Marcadé (Isabel Azar) rushed on stage. Few things are more satisfying than seeing reality drown out the superficiality of the bored nobles playing inane games with everyone and everything, including themselves.
Directed by Bronwyn Barnwell, the SIP production is a sumptuous feast, full of sweet music (expertly performed live by the company), and dressed in wonderful costumes (curtesy of Gill Othen, Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Rebecca Pratt’s Bard Walk and the RSC), and embellished by feats of physical comedy. The surface, that is, is perfectly polished. And this perfection sets off, very deliciously, the hollow spaces within the world of the play. The King of Navarre (Charlie Morton) and his nobles (Joe Deverell-Smith, Josh Caldicott, and Balázs Hergert) busy themselves with posturing, and the Princess of France (Jen Waghorn) and her ladies (Olivia Duston, Dewi Dankmeyer, and Harriet Colmer), aided and goaded on by Boyet (Elliot Lambert), scorn them. The emphasis on social mores past held tight within their brocade and corsets and articulated in their giggling reveals the fatuousness engendered by their privilege.
Don Adriano (Rebecca Lawton), Moth (Panka Paskuj), and Costard (Kat Twigg) race back and forth across vapid topics, confounding Anthony Dull (Holland Crooke) with no resolution in sight. And inanity is, as is privilege, and the facile inhumanity it gives rise to, an extremely pressing concern in our times.
In a lot of senses, the feeling the play leaves behind is succinctly summed up in the hunting scene. In this production, the Forester (Emma Callighan) guided the Princess’ arrow to hit a wide-eyed fawn (Isabel Azar). On the one hand, this was definitely comical: too over the top to be taken even the slightest bit seriously. Yet, on the other hand, as the fawn collapsed bonelessly to the ground, and was dragged off stage the predominant mood was pity. Letting us see the killing shot brings the violence at the heart of the play – at the heart of so many comedies – into sharp relief.
I truly enjoyed this production. Shakespeare’s comedies are never simple, and a company often strains to make them genuinely fun. The SIP managed both to reveal the underlying spores of inhumanity and to revel in the sheer joy of it.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own
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