Or, Love’s Labour’s Won
(Royal Shakespeare Company, Haymarket Theatre, until 18 March 2017)
Several documents refer to a Shakespeare play called Love’s Labour’s Won, but there’s no sign of it in the First Folio and scholars have, increasingly, come to think that it might just have been renamed. The RSC make the playful but persuasive case that it may have been the play now known as Much Ado About Nothing (i.e. ‘Love’s Labour’s Won, or, Much Ado About Nothing‘). In the second part of their London-season duology, the cast and crew of the RSC take us back to the sumptuous country house we saw in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Then it was summer, the last summer, before war broke out and the young men marched away. But now it’s Christmastime: the Armistice has been signed and the soldiers have come home. The battles are no longer those of bayonets and machine-guns in the mud but, instead, the glittering flash and fire of wordplay.
As this is the fifth production of Much Ado that I’ve written about, I hardly think I need to give a plot synopsis. Suffice it to say that all eyes are on the ‘merry war’ between the confirmed bachelor Benedick and the smart, no-nonsense Beatrice as they skirmish around the awkward fact that they actually both rather like each other. Edward Bennett (formerly Berowne) and Lisa Dillon (formerly Rosaline) are both back in the saddle as the bickering lovers, reprising their wonderful chemistry from Love’s Labour’s Lost.
In this play, the balance shifts slightly: while Love’s Labour brought us closer to Berowne, Much Ado – or this production, anyway – invites us to side with Beatrice. Dillon’s waspish spark is a thin carapace over a fragile core, and she was at her best in the scenes where Beatrice comes close to cracking – just after the eavesdropping scene, when she decides to allow herself to love Benedick; and, painfully, in her confrontation with Benedick after Claudio has rejected Hero. She is a woman at the end of her tether, tormented by the irreconcilable clash of grief for her cousin, guilt for her own hopes, and astounded love. While I felt that we never got to see Rosaline’s true complexity in Love’s Labour, Much Ado offers us one of Shakespeare’s rare, richly-textured female leads. Beatrice is not a stereotype: she feels like a real person, conflicted, flawed and wonderful, and Dillon conveyed her depth without sacrificing the warmth and sparkle that endear her so deeply to Hero, Leonato and her family.
I enthused about Bennett in Love’s Labour’s Lost and his Benedick is no less delightful than his Berowne – indeed, there are points when the two feel like a single character linking the plays. But Berowne is more genial than Benedick, more gracious, more open: Benedick, for all that he’s an old romantic at heart, would rather die than reveal it (at the start). Bennett beautifully traced the character’s gradual softening, laced with plenty of physical comedy: the eavesdropping scenes are always a pleasure and Bennett left me sobbing with laughter as he hid behind curtains and under the Christmas tree. And yet this Benedick is never too sharp – he whips back at Beatrice’s needling, and he sometimes shows his frustration, but he’s ready to yield. When, in the final scene, he accepts the inevitable – ‘Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity‘ – that line is delivered with the perfect balance of teasing and deep, comfortable fondness.
Although I had no qualms about the strong central couple, I didn’t always feel that the supporting roles were quite as comfortable as in Love’s Labour’s Lost. This is partly Shakespeare’s fault. Claudio and Hero are thankless roles: the kind of sweet, vapid lovers that typically turn up as secondo uomo e donna in a Baroque opera. Tunji Kasim was a noble yet somehow disengaged Claudio, facing the ‘revelation’ of Hero’s infidelity with a stiff calm – yet I can’t help feeling that Claudio is young and idealistic enough to be more visibly disturbed by this evidence that the world doesn’t fit his chivalric pattern. Rebecca Collingwood’s Hero was, likewise, sweet and restrained: as so often happens, I found myself longing for a more robust response to her rejection.
Remarkably, the member of Beatrice’s family who really stood out was Leonato (Stephen Pacey, who had been the pedant Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost). It’s hard to warm to Leonato, especially after he has browbeaten his innocent daughter, but Pacey remained alone in the chapel after all the other characters had departed – and, as the lights fell on the scene, he slowly bent forward over his knees and wept: a father who believed that he had lost his pride, his honour and his child.
I don’t think I’m ever really going to be reconciled to Dogberry, who takes up too much stage time as a character (blame Shakespeare), but Nick Haverson played the fool with great aplomb. Yet this Dogberry wasn’t an outright clown. Haverson drags one foot, has a nervous twitch and, at the end of the examination scene, is left along on stage gasping for breath, coughing, pushed beyond physical endurance by the insult of being called an ass. And suddenly you realise that he’s not a well man: perhaps he’s come back broken from the war – less fortunate than these golden young men who frolic up at the hall – reduced to being patronised by his social superiors. There was a bitter twist to it.
Like Love’s Labour’s Lost, the production is set off with musical interludes. The song Sigh no more is performed by Balthasar (Harry Waller) at the piano and the party scenes are spiced with snatches of jazz and a bluesy setting of Come live with me and be my love. It all works very well, the music tying scenes together and emphasising the mood as necessary. I think there was even a live orchestra hidden somewhere, because a conductor (Nigel Hess?) was called out on both nights to take a bow before the audience.
As I said of Love’s Labour’s Lost, this is a treat to warm your heart against the winter chill. Do see these two shows if you can: they work best together. My tickets were only £10 thanks to Get Into London Theatre‘s January discount scheme, so there are good deals to be had – and, if that isn’t possible, then there’s always the DVD.