“Our court shall be a little academe, Still and contemplative in living art”.
The Young King of Nevarre, along with two of his courtiers, Lords Berowne and Dumaine, vow to forego the baser pleasures of life, in order to pursue a quiet three years of study. When the Princess of France arrives with her entourage, however, in order to discuss the sovereignty of Aquitaine, the men fall head over heels in love, quickly forgetting the vows they made, and their chief concern becomes the subject of wooing these ladies, who won’t be won without a fight, verbal or otherwise.
Nick Bagnall directs William Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ at the Globe’s intimate Sam Wanamaker Theatre, an enchanting production that hearkens back to the golden age of traditional Shakespearean theatre. Containing elements of the Italian commedia dell’arte, the play highlights Shakespeare’s early ability as a wordsmith, and the production shows a strict adherence to, and respect of, his language, whilst fully mining the humour present within the play.
The production begins with the almost ritualistic lighting of the playhouse’s candles. With no artificial light, the audience are plunged into darkness as they take their seats, shutters closed.The Princess of France enters, alone, the contours of her face illuminated by a single candle. She takes her seat upon the centre of a large rectangular box, after having first extracted an item from its depths. Placing her candle upon the floor, she reveals in her hands a music box, and slowly begins to turn the handle, a delicate tinkling soon giving way to music from the musicians situated above the stage. As the music plays, more characters enter onto the stage, and begin lighting the many candles that adorn six large chandeliers, which are then raised, casting a gentle warm glow across the entirety of the playhouse, creating a truly enchanting ambience.
This production is the epitome of traditional Shakespearean theatre, largely presented in such a way as it would have been in the Bard’s day. However, certain modern references maintain the text’s relatability for modern day audiences, and actually, generate a greater audience reaction, when we see, and hear, things, we do not expect to. For example, when the Princess, along with her Ladies, arrives in the grounds of the King’s castle, the Princess ‘freshens’ herself up, applying deodorant to her underarms (and then to another part of her…), before cocking her leg up on the side of the stalls and shaving. Later, when the women are hunting, the Princess, breathless, takes two puffs of an inhaler.
After acknowledging their love of the women, and declaring it to each other, the King and his Lords visit the women in disguise. They enter the auditorium dressed as Muscovites and, once on stage, begin dancing, singing what sounds like a traditional tune. Before we know it, however, it seems as though we hear the Lords sing “giuchie, giuchie, ya ya dada”, and before we know it, they are treating Russian rendition of Lady Marmalade, the serious faces they maintained throughout making it all the more humorous.
The cast display a masterful command of Shakespeare’s language, and a skilled ability to work their audience, and the space. The humour – the wit, the sarcasm, the wordplay – is made even funnier, the lengthy monologues ever more poignant, through their keen awareness of linguistic style. Physical comedy also plays its part here, and the slapstick movements of our cast, in addition to their frequent ad-libs and interaction with the audience, perfectly complements their dialogue, and the result is priceless.
Jos Vantyler’s ‘fantastical Spaniard’ Armado is magnificent. A cross between Jack Sparrow and Zorro, the dashing character frequently prances round the stage, knocking out flamenco and fencing moves, before slipping into bouts of deep melancholy, often sinking to his knees. A parody of a hot-blooded Spanish lover, playing to the stereotypical, Vantyler’s Armado is hugely passionate and highly intense, despite the mood that strikes him. Vantyler also plays moth, pageboy to Armado. When the two are in conversation, thereby, Vantyler would skilfully switch between accents, and would lower himself when Moth, to show the difference between the Spanish soldier, and the ‘tender juvenile’. Such a decision appear to suggest that Moth was simply a figment of Armando’s imagination, a figment he turned to for conversation, companionship, reassurance and honesty. However, music accompanied the movements of Moth, and when he ‘left’ the auditorium, doors were slammed, and curtains lifted. Also, other characters could ‘see’ him, would acknowledge his physical existence. Again, director Bagnall forces his audience to consider what is real, in this fairy-tale world he has created. Either way, Vantyler’s portrayal of both Armado and Moth perhaps hints at an innocence, suggestive of the child that lives within us all.
Paul Stocker’s King, alongside Tom Kanji’s Dumaine and Dharmesh Patel’s Berowne, are irresistible. Though the characters’ weak attempts at self-denial are rather pitiful, it is such that adds to audience amusement, and we cannot help but delight in their oath-breaking, and their initial feeble attempts to woo the Princess and her Ladies. When together, it’s all ‘lads, lads, lads’, a show of male bravado and masculinity. However, when alone, the characters become very dramatic, very sensitive, the epitome of courtly lovers, and descend into dreamy monologues, writing verse and sending tokens to the Ladies. Patel’s several monologues are performed beautifully, very softly and delicately, with a tender appreciation of Shakespeare’s language. Kanji’s monologue, his declaration of love, is performed so passionately, it causes the character to rip his shirt open and dance, quite provocatively. Charming characters, we recognise their good intentions, and are won over by their efforts, as are the Ladies.
Charlotte Mills’ Boyet, attendant to the Princess, and go-between ‘twixt her and the King, is wonderful, hugely entertaining. A character of the people, it is her actions that steer some of the action in the production. Her loyalty to the Princess is notable, and it is clear here that the two share a firm relationship.
Kirsty Woodwards’ Princess, endearingly gawky physically, bears a grace of mind, which elevates the character, as with her Ladies, Jade Williams’ Rosaline and Leaphia Darko’s Katherine, attributing to them a powerful, and rather modern, independence. Their wit, and their realism, lends them a superior air, as they strive to quell any presumption on the part of the men, and mock their attempts to woo them. When together, they become very human, very ‘attainable’. When the Princess and her Ladies first arrive in the castle grounds, there skirts are hitched up around their waist. However, on the men’s approach, they are quick to lower their skirts. Later, when hunting, the women adorn camouflage dress, and go after a rabbit, Williams’ Rosaline in particular getting a little too serious, with almost primitive movements and calls. Again, however, when a male character arrives, they are quick to change their mannerisms and act coy and genteel. This suggests that perception plays a very important part in the text, and that all of our characters, male and female alike, aspire towards something, in order that they might be perceived in a certain way, whether in the present, as with the women, or in the future, with the men.
Two of Shakespeare’s original characters are missing from this production – Lord Longueville, and Lady Maria, each of whom falls in love with the other. Rather than take away from the play, however, this only adds to the intimacy of this already intimate production. Fewer characters mean that those who are present are given a more rounded feel, and the audience can therefore invest more readily, and more heavily, in the welfare of these characters.
The play is largely structured into the poetic form which, when spoken, gives way to a smooth fluidity of speech, and this is, in part, maintained in this production. However, at times, the poetry is broken, interrupted, so that, when two characters are engaged in a verbal sparring, it seems more natural, as witty blows are bandied back and forth. However, mostly, as during the play’s lengthy monologues, the beauty, and pace, of Shakespeare’s poetry is adhered to, the language defending love, declaring love, whilst cleverly and subtly undermining the very notion of love, and lovers.
There is a beautiful sense of the fantastical to this production. The action that ensues seems to revolve around, or actually stem from, this box, that is so often the focus, centre stage. Wooden hobby horses are plucked from the box on the whims of the characters, from which many of whom have emerged themselves. In addition to these horses, and the aforementioned music box, the production contains heart-shaped balloons, and costume-style crowns adorn the heads of our royalty, whilst Lords wear the uniforms similar to those on toy soldiers, more more specifically, nutcrackers. It would seem, then, that this is a toy box. This is, in this setting, something of a fairy-tale, in which the audience are invited into the larger toy box that is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the fantasy extending, intensifying, throughout the auditorium, where imagination runs wild, reality returning only after one’s exit.
These familiar figurines – soldiers, princesses and Kings – have come to life, as stock characters, parodies of their miniature selves. Fitting, considering the predominant light-hearted, one might say almost childish, playfulness of the production, of the play, in which the world is seen, as through the eyes of a child – a child striving to achieve the heights of great art, to become, art. Certain characters, especially the men, within the production appear to possess an immaturity, an ignorance, perhaps, of the facts of life. In fact, it is the women that serve to undermine the fancies, the fantasies, of the men. However, with all our characters, reality slowly dawns on them throughout, culminating at the play’s end.
Notably, Berowne, hesitant from the off to abstain from pleasures, later suggests that it is folly to suppose one can refrain from certain things, when it is through these things that one can truly learn. Learn about what is important, learn things that even the best art cannot teach, things they will only learn through experience, through practice, and through living.
Shakespeare’s text contains only contains music and song at the end of the play. Here, however, music is present throughout. Shakespeare’s text bears a great lyricism, a natural musicality, and so his words lend themselves so well to the beautiful score composed by Laura Moody and James Fortune, which complements the dialogue perfectly, whilst also sharpening the production’s fairy-tale backdrop.
Another great example of a play within a play, Armado, Moth, Sir Nathaniel and Holofernes put on a production relating to the ‘Nine Worthies’ – nine now legendary historical and scriptural figures who it is said embody the values of chivalry. These men, now immortalised for their deeds, in art and in literature, represent the very types of men our male characters, King, Lords and Armado, would become – great men. The fact the other characters interrupt the performance, heckling the ‘actors’, again shows the almost laughable efforts of people to aspire to such seemingly unachievable heights.
This rather playful production satirises the notion of art as a suitable, as an equitable, as a worthy, replacement, a substitute, for life.
This production, up until a certain point at the end, is but make-believe, offering a distorted perception of life, suggested that all is perfect. However, such perfection lies only on the surface, and there is an impending darkness, that culminates at the play’s end, sharply reminding an audience that, no matter how hard we strive for perfection, and despite our best intentions, we cannot control reality, and therefore, life often falls short. Despite the efforts of our characters, none can stop reality seeping into the cracks of the fantasy they have created for themselves – none can stop the darkness getting back in.
At the end of the play, Boyet delivers news to the Princess of her father’s death. The news of this death comes as a shock, one that jolts both characters and audience equally from a dream-like state. What began, what was purposed, as lighthearted entertainment, suddenly bears this weight, this severe gravity. It is only now we realise that such was foreshadowed at the play’s opening. In fact, it might be that the production itself was indeed a reminiscence, perhaps a dream, a figment of the imagination of the Princess, for whom the production ends as it began. Together, characters and audience have come full circle.
All reverts to as it was before it began. One by one, the characters diminish, exiting through a trapdoor after returning to their box, until the Princess is once again alone, a single candle lit, before that too is blown out, and all is darkness once more. The lighting is just one example of duality in the production, of which there are several – light and dark, fantasy and reality, mirth and melancholy, and life and death. What has been but a charming, albeit be all-too-brief fantasy, remains just that, whilst reality itself sets back in.
It is also announced that Jacqueline, the country wench whom Armado is in love with, is pregnant with his child. Even in this fantastical state, the actions of these characters have consequences, and with them, new responsibilities.
One of Shakespeare’s early comedies, this rarely performed play is considered ‘impenetrable’ by critics and, on the surface, the production is seemingly trivial, a witty battle between the sexes, largely concerned with entertainment. However, the play possesses an underlying severity, and this production, these performers, attribute to the play a real depth, a humanity. The production recognises, and explores, both virtue and vice, perfection and imperfection, and folly and flaw, of its characters. The result is that the production’s close becomes infinitely more moving, and everything is slowly stripped back, the candles snuffed, one by one, the characters returning to whence they came, as all trace of the fantastical is peeled away, and we are plunged once more into the darkness that often accompanies reality, as the atmosphere of mirth, now one of melancholy, takes hold of our characters. The Princess sits, crying, mourning, perhaps for more loss than one.
Far from the happy ending associated with fairy-tales, Berowne states here that “Our wooing doth not end like an old play: Jack hath not Jill”. We are, quite bluntly, reminded, that life is not a fairy-tale. Is not art. Although the two seek to represent each other in many ways, they are separate, and must be experienced, and enjoyed, as such.
At the end, the Ladies propose a wait of twelve months and a day, before they would be once more reunited with the Lords, setting them tasks to accomplish within that time, happiness delayed so that the appropriate mourning might take place. However, this time would also serve to ensure that decisions are not made in the heat of passion, and gives such passion a chance to cool off. As Berowne suggest, this length of time if far too long for a play and, without a time lapse, Shakespeare gives his characters no guarantee of happiness, no promise for hope. This is a very problematic ending, unusual for a comedy. Therefore, the audience are forced to indulge in their own fantasy, to create their own fairy-tale.
This enchanting production is, in itself, a piece of art. A fine example of a play that satirises the notion that art could ever be life’s equal. It is art, that seeks to represent life. Life, in which people strive to become art. Art, that seeks to rise above the base pleasures of life. Life that mocks the unattainable heights of art.
The production is “a great feast of languages”, of love, of art, and of life.