In an interesting pairing Shakespeare’s LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING have been put together in a double bill at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Using the same country house setting, the plays are set either side of the 1914-1918 war. This juxtaposition brings out the similarities not only between some of the characters but also the use of words. The doubling of the two plays gives audiences a chance to form a view about whether Much Ado is actually the lost play by Shakespeare entitled Love’s Labour’s Won.
Both plays are enhanced by the music of composer Nigel Hess, who has found a way to place the musical styles of each period within the plays. He employs ragtime and Noel Coward ditties.
Director Christopher Luscombe conducts the same company of actors with mastery, bringing out the wit in Shakespeare’s language, the fun in the comic scenes as well as taking the audience with him in the serious parts – towards the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost and the denouncing of Hero as a whore in Much Ado. He also has the same creative team and actors, the design team, the lovely costumes and the action work beautifully together.
The Edwardian setting – designer Simon Higlett has based his English country house on Charlecote Park, which is a few miles from where Shakespeare lived in Stratford-upon –Avon – suits both plays which take place before and after the Great War. The set is beautifully constructed with scene changes moving smoothly on platforms from inside to outside the house and even on the roof!
In Love’s Labour’s Lost we meet the King of Navarre (Sam Alexander) and his three companions, Berowne (Edward Bennett), Longaville (William Belchambers) and Dumaine (Tunji Kasim), who are so serious about focusing on their studying that they make rules which includes not going near women for three years. This doesn’t last long as they soon meet the Princess of France (Leah Whitaker) and her friends, Rosaline (Lisa Dillon), Katharine (Rebecca Collingwood), and Maria (Paige Carter), who will make them forget their vows as they fall in love.
There are a number of misunderstandings and confusions – most engineered by the characters – the women in masks at one point swopping the favours given by their boyfriends so that the men are confused about which woman is theirs.
Not generally known as one of Shakespeare best plays, Luscombe manages to draw out all the comedy he can. There is a wonderful scene set on the rooftop with Berowne trying to deny he is in love while his companions declare their love for their ladies. All are in their dressing gowns and Dumaine has a teddy bear with him. There is also a most amusing Cossack dance by the four men. Berowne’s love is Rosaline who is as witty as him.
There are some very amusing comedy set pieces provided by the other characters that surround the main players. A very funny Don Armado, portrayed by John Hodgkinson, brings out all the absurdities of the Spaniard’s mispronunciations including, “Men of Piss [peace].” He is matched by Moth, the serving boy, delightfully played by Peter McGovern, who has a beautiful singing voice.
The play ends on a serious note as the four friends march off to war.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING or Love’s Labour’s Won is one long laugh from beginning to end. The variety of the scenes from the verbal confrontations between Benedick and Beatrice to the slapstick comedy routines around Dogberry, the constable (Nick Haverson) and the community policeman (all neighbours) who form his crew are so well managed by director Christopher Luscombe that the audience almost levitates from their seats with laughter.
We begin – or almost continue from Much Ado – with a different set of men returning from the war: Benedick (Edward Bennett), Claudio (Tunji Kasim), Conrade (William Belchambers) and the bitter Don John (Sam Alexander) on crutches. The main story is between Benedick and Beatrice (Lisda Dillon) who have had a previous relationship and now jeer at and constantly disparage each other. Their friends, however, get together to make each believe that the other is in love with them. So we have Benedick hiding in a Christmas tree whose lights go on and off as he reacts to what he hears about Beatrice being in love with him and later Beatrice overhearing her female friends telling the same story about Benedick’s great love for her. There is really good chemistry between the two actors and they work well together firstly as they spar and later as we see them succumbing to the first emotions of the realisation of their growing love. The Christmas tree episode is the funniest part of this great production.
Shakespeare, though, has introduced a dark element: Hero (Rebecca Collingwood) who is the fiancé of Claudio and cousin to Beatrice, is set up by Don John who falsely makes Claudio believe that she is having a love affair with another. Beatrice fiercely advocates Hero’s innocence and Benedick believes her, and agrees to be part of a plot to pretend that Hero has died following Claudio’s denouncement of her at the altar.
It is Dogberry and his mates who learn the truth and eventually tell Claudio and the others. And we are back to comedy, indeed almost keystone cops farce, as the village policemen and their two prisoners manoeuvre around furniture in the room where Dogberry undertakes his interrogations.
Chichester Festival Theatre. Booking until 29 October 2016 then Manchester Opera House 23 November – 3 December, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London 9 Decenber – 18 March 2017) Box office 01243 781312 cft.org.uk.
Review by Carlie Newman