Christopher Luscombe has created a magical double bill for the Royal Shakespeare Company. An enchanting, whimsical, funny and modern interpretation of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing that can’t fail to be successful.
The comedies are so playful and sparkling that, as inexpert as I am, I find hard to believe they were written by Stratford-upon-Avon’s famous son.
But Luscombe’s decision to update the stories to tie in with the World War One centenAry makes them instantly accessible.
Populist too, particularly setting LLL in that giddy pre-war Downton era of England’s great country houses.
There’s elements of Wilde, Coward, Novello, Buster Keaton and Morecambe and Wise. Who’d have thought those names would share a credit?
Simon Higlett’s sumptuous sets are stunning, taken from the real life grandeur of Charlecote Park which sits in landscaped grounds just a couple of miles outside Stratford.
The RSC has coupled the plays, labelling Much Ado as LLL’s lost partner Love’s Labour’s Won. Whether it is or not they share a common theme of love and tempestuous romance.
An earnest young king (Sam Alexander) and his three best friends decide to forsake wine, women and song for three year’s academic study.
The whole idea lasts about five minutes with the arrival at court of the Princess Of France and her three ladies.
The men are instantly smitten. The playboy Berowne, a confirmed bachelor (in the old fashioned sense of the word), is unable to resist the sparky flirtation of Rosaline.
Below stairs Costard, the old rogue of a gardener, vies for a maid who has also attracted the attentions of a Spanish traveller.
The dialogue throughout is pure verbal foreplay.
The comedy peaks when all four men sneak onto the parapet to compose love letters, only for each to discover the other’s guilty secret.
But love is lost when tragedy strikes and the champagne fizz of the drama ends on a sombre note.
LLW opens at the end of the Great War when the house is being used as an army hospital.
The same great company, led by the irrepressible Edward Bennett, struggle for a return to normality.
Bennett’s Benedick and Michelle Terry‘s Beatrice resist each other with a passion.
But their friends and relatives can see that they belong together and do their utmost to ignite the flame of romance.
In one scene Benedick hides behind the arras to hear others plotting his future.
His head pops out through the curtains and, later, among the branches of a bedecked Christmas tree. It’s pure farce.
Bennett, all plum voice and disarming smile, spends a lot of time talking in asides to the audience. He’s a natural comedian who speaks Shakespeare’s lines as though they were written with the lightness of Oscar Wilde.
He is almost upstaged by Nick Haverson who, in LLL, plays Costard and, in LLW, Dogberry the inept local bobby. Both such off-the-wall characters that they have the audience in tears of laughter whenever they’re on stage.
There’s a great set piece when Dogberry interviews two suspects in the close quarters of his station. It’s physical comedy at its best.
Terry gives a confident performance as the fiery Rosaline and Beatrice.
David Horovitch and Thomas Wheatley make notably entertaining cameos. In the first play they talk with such pomposity that it was impossible to understand what the hell they were saying. A sentiment echoed by taciturn copper Dull.
This is entertainment at its very best. The plays run in rep on the RSC main stage until March 14.
They will be broadcast live into cinemas on (LLL) February 11 and (LLW) on March 4.