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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Love's Labour's Lost
Haymarket Theatre  Winter 2016-2017

Warm, funny and thoroughly delightful, this Royal Shakespeare Company production turns a sometimes difficult play into a festive celebration of love in all its glory and folly. 

This is the one about the guys who swear off women to devote themselves to their studies, only to have some girls arrive. 

Their consternation, their mental gymnastics trying to find a loophole in their oath, and their fumbling attempts at wooing make up the comedy, supported by the equally foolish but lovable antics of some secondary characters. 

Two things about the play have caused problems in some past productions, even for the RSC, but director Christopher Luscombe rides smoothly past them here. 

The language of the play is sometimes so overly florid and self-consciously 'poetic' that some scholars have suspected it might be a parody, and the plot is really over when the men rationalise their way out of their oath, leaving nothing but filler until a twist ending that partly justifies the title. 

Director Luscombe skilfully trims some of the rhetorical excesses from the text very uncharacteristically for the RSC, this production runs well under three hours and guides us to see the rest as the forgiveable over-enthusiasm of young men in love.

Love inspires even the dimmest to poetry, says the play, and the dimmest can charitably be forgiven if it's bad poetry. 

Indeed, the all-embracing warmth of this production comes from the recognition that enthusiasm of any sort can make one ridiculous, but that enthusiasm of any sort should be celebrated for that very reason. 

When the boys each sneak off to write really bad love poems (and then catch each other at it), the badness of the poetry is not only funny but in an odd way evidence of the innocent sincerity of their feelings, since they are moved beyond their past experience and skill. 

Among the secondary cast the schoolmaster who is a walking thesaurus and Latin grammar clearly gets so much joy from his pointless erudition that he is a delight rather than a bore, and the Spaniard who has not quite mastered English is forgiven because his malapropisms all come from his pride in being (as he thinks) so eloquent in his second language. 

And the filler sequences of the second half the boys deciding (for what seem like good reasons at the time) to disguise themselves as Russians, their consternation when they then re-appear as themselves and hear the girls' reaction, the townsfolk's amateur dramatics are all so funny in themselves and so fully absorbed in the play's celebration of silliness that we hardly notice that they are not advancing the plot a millimetre. 

Edward Bennett shines as Berowne, not just the class clown but clearly the smartest of the boys and their natural leader, with the other three nicely individualised and fleshed out by Sam Alexander, William Belchambers and Tunji Kasim. 

Steven Pacey's schoolmaster and John Hodgkinson's Spaniard stand out among the locals, and the only imbalance is among the women.

As Rosaline, the one Berowne falls for, Lisa Dillon should be his counterpart as witty leader of her group. But she brings too little energy, individuality or presence to her character, and it is Leah Whitaker as the Princess who dominates those scenes. 

Special mention must be made of Simon Higlett's atmospheric and remarkably flexible set, transforming instantly from library to open field to rooftop and back, and of Nigel Hess's original music, lovely in itself and guiding the play's subtle shifts in tone by moving from folk melodies through Gilbert and Sullivan sophistication to a martial sound. 

Love's Labour's Lost is being performed in rep with Much Ado About Nothing, with the same actors and director.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Love's Labour's Lost  - RSC at Haymarket Theatre 2016

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