Love’s Labour’s Won [Much Ado About Nothing]: RSC Education Schools Broadcast
Royal Shakespeare Company
Dir. Christopher Luscombe
Royal Shakespeare Theatre/Ravensbourne University
30 April 2015
Much Ado About Nothing, here renamed Love’s Labour’s Won to fit with the RSC’s other offerings during Winter 2014-15, is a play about two people who refuse to countenance that they will ever change their opinions, their tastes and their behaviours. This review acknowledges the changes and continuities in the still evolving format of the RSC schools broadcast with reference to their latest instalment. It adds to previous blogs I’ve written about the RSC schools broadcasts: on this site, see my review of the Two Gentlemen of Verona @RSC_Education schools broadcast; and, on the British Shakespeare Association Education Network blog, my report on a question and answer session between Prof. John Wyver and the RSC’s Artistic Director Greg Doran for potted histories of the venture. As such, it is primarily concerned with reviewing the format of and response to the production. I was hoping to be able to refer readers to freely-available academic blogposts but they seem rather thin on the ground for this production and newspaper reviews, including Michael Billington’s in The Guardian, are skimpy (perhaps because pantomimes were competing for space at this time of year), so Shakespeare journals might be the best bet.
Apart from its superb pace, ideal for keeping school audiences hooked, the quality that most struck me about the production itself was the way in which television arguably mediatises the theatre here i.e. the theatre production itself strives to be television-like with its Downton Abbey echoes including a stately home setting (based on Warwickshire’s Charlecote Park), below-stairs plotting, sexual intrigue, high production values and serialisation. Downton has been ridiculed for stretching itself to six series, Love’s Labour’s Won for, at least nominally, shoehorning Much Ado into the role of lost-play sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost (not to mention forming a trio of plays with new writing The Christmas Truce as part of this ensemble’s offering to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One). The overhead camera angles of the snooker game and successful trick shots played by Don John (which arguably did more to render him a sympathetic character than his crip drag and the narrative prosthesis of his war wounds), uniquely available to audiences of this recording, arguably brought snooker championships played in another theatre, Sheffield’s Crucible, to mind. Rather more examples of intertextuality than re-mediation were the clipped military accents, uniforms and tragicomic shell-shock of Blackadder Goes Forth, Dogberry’s ‘no no no no no’ pinched from the mouth of the similarly country-bumpkin Vicar of Dibley’s Jim Trott, Morecambe and Wise-style music-and-messing-about-with-curtains rendering of Benedick’s gulling, and Balthazar’s offering of ‘Come live with me and be my love’, which, albeit with a different musical setting, was sung at the Yorkist victory party in Ian McKellan’s 1930s Richard III. The focus on Englishness, patriotism and festivity perfectly showcased the RSC’s ability to capture the production moment around Remembrance Day and Christmas (the end of April was fittingly cold for its broadcast, helped by lecture room windows which had been left open overnight and a recalcitrant air-conditioning system) and to appeal to its staple audience for Stratford productions – predominantly older, white viewers who will remember these 1970s-90s programmes.
In terms of the format, RSC Education have either been reading my reviews, or great minds – whether RSC employees or other viewers creating feedback – think alike, because there have been subtle changes since the Two Gentlemen broadcast (regrettably, I missed the Love’s Labour’s Lost broadcast around Easter). The issue of uncertainty around liveness, which confused myself and other tweeting viewers last time, was dealt with during it. The presenter, Sonali Shah, announced that the performance was recorded when it was screened live to cinemas across the world. She eagerly flagged up the added-value that this audience could expect: ‘…no one in cinemas got to ask questions’ of the cast and crew. Additionally the ‘RSC live’ watermark that I had noticed previously had been altered to ‘RSC’: I only noticed the word ‘LIVE’ in black font, displayed momentarily (possibly unintentionally) in the middle of the screen over Shah’s midriff. Another concern that I had raised was the dominance of particular schools in having their questions aired and answered: teachers were able to submit three questions each this time around, though sadly not enough schools took up this opportunity, so certain schools’ questions scrolled round and round the banner during the introductions and intervals. Again the RSC’s social media staff had to repeatedly remind and advise teachers and their students to submit questions via the online form rather than Twitter, so it is possible that some lack of diversity in the schools who gained mentions was down to teachers’ familiarity with proceedings as well as the fact that it’s well nigh impossible to toggle between the broadcast you are projecting and the online link to submit questions as they arise while watching the show: you would need two internet-connected devices to do so without disrupting the viewing.
Other changes included the addition of three short animations summarising the plot that were screened before each part. There was much to like about these animated shorts: they were funny, easy to follow and presumably saved teachers needing to prepare a synopsis (something the Bard on the Beach festival also does with its ‘In a nutshell’ pre-show talks). However, I wondered whether the plot-spoiler for part three was really necessary. If the students had not managed to follow the story so far, or were not interested to see whether, as Sonali Shah put it, Benedick ‘would choose between his love or his friend’, I’m not convinced that the third animation would have made a difference – other than a negative one for those students who were on tenterhooks with suspense. Furthermore, this new feature was balanced with the loss of one I really enjoyed from the Two Gentleman broadcast: the two schoolchildren pundits who introduced and commented on the production were replaced by the ensemble’s Assistant Director Guy Unsworth.
One of the simultaneously disconcerting and amusing aspects of the liveness and participatoriness over the schools broadcasts’ infancy seemed to have largely disappeared: teachers’ and the company’s inability to prevent students engaging in mostly obscene/occasionally subversive electronic banter (at least from the official sites, hashtags and twitter handles). I was surprised at this given the volume of lad culture-type jokes being made at the expense of women and their freedoms in Two Gentlemen and the much more explicitly feminist overtones of this version of Much Ado: encompassing Beatrice’s outspokenness with the male characters, her arguable success in this battle-of-the-sexes/battle-of-wits, her suffragette pin and purple (plum?) coloured trousers which were a hit with female tweeters watching nationwide and her railing both at the confines of femininity and effeminacy of (early) modern manhood. I want to flag up a few possible explanations of for this from the mundane to the ideological, likely to wishful thinking, but for which I have no tangible evidence: schools whose students misbehaved previously chose not to participate this time; outlined policing measures and deterrent consequences for students who did so; or confiscated internet-connected devices; the more broadcasts take place, the more the novelty of making publicly-available, risqué statements has worn off; messages about the unacceptability of lad culture are penetrating schoolchildren’s consciousness, due to studies and interventions by researchers such as Prof. Carolyn Jackson and Dr Vanita Sundaram and Laura Bates’ #everydaysexism. Moreover, there were no perceptible technical glitches on the broadcaster’s part this time, something that during Two Gentlemen had resulted in some rather ungentle responses from students.
The spread of ages watching has continued to widen, from year one through to university students: the University of York’s Department of Education were among the first, if not the first, Higher Education Institution to screen the broadcasts, but others have caught on….strangely enough, given the broadcast’s national reach, just down the road, with York St John (YSJ) joining in – complete with Shakespeare selfies (the number of selfies taken by teachers with their class did make me wonder how much long the trend will survive for now that it is part of institutions’ and professionals’ repertoire/desperation to see themselves flashed up on their own projector screen). I would hesitate to attribute this to York’s distance from Stratford, given that YSJ colleagues and myself practically commute between the two on a regular basis, seizing opportunities to see productions live in the theatre; it would be fantastic if it was explained by our respective (and diverse) department’s interest in Shakespeare in education; but it is much more fun to explain it with reference to Yorkshire folks’ famous fiscal cautiousness. Home schoolers were also a more visible presence than at Two Gentlemen. The photos they submitted (to be shown at the intervals) suggested that lots of home schoolers had banded together within their local area to view it and their photos suggested a collectivity and community equalling those snapped in classrooms.
Similarities included the overall timing and structure of the event: 9.15am to 13.15pm GMT, although here the broadcast of the play was in three sections – as in the production itself and presumably necessitated by the more-than-usually-substantial sets (including an unwieldy-looking church interior) – creating two, reasonably short, intermissions. The RSC had again arranged a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter, who was introduced –
along with the students responsible for the technical aspects of the broadcast from, what is now, Ravensbourne University’s studios – at the outset; the teachers’ pack contained activities, this time more geared towards the two intervals than for preparation/post-show follow up. In terms of questions, answered by Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Hero) and Chris Nayak (Boraccio), there was still a sizeable body interested in the processes and practicalities of acting – line-learning, nerve-calming, rehearsing and training – including and beyond Shakespeare. The actors’ answers interestingly corresponded with Doran’s comments about aspects of playing for cinema broadcasts and recordings: the fear of fluffing lines with a much larger audience than the theatre contains and reluctance to lay down one version of a living, dynamic production. Like last time, there were a high number of questions about the period setting. However, some new perspectives appeared, attributable to different company or student circumstances. A few questions sought comparisons between the Lost & Won productions and actors’ experiences of being involved in both. There were also essay-style ones about the play’s most important emotions, characters’ motivations, and key quotations. Tweeted photos of students sat in examination halls and statements about watching the broadcast as revision suggested many students at A-level would be writing on the play shortly: let’s hope examiners don’t penalise them if they use the RSC’s ‘alternative’ title! With the conjunction between exam text and broadcast play here, what I witnessed was a new, happier meaning of ‘teaching to the test’; a way of watching an accessible interpretation capable of supplying a sense of participation and community above that provided by watching a DVD in class; and a rapid, widespread embracing of this particular, performance-studies-informed, RSC scheme – beyond that which active methods achieved, given explicit and implicit reservations from some school teachers and most policy-makers about its use with older students –as suitable for all ages and stages.