Love’s Labour’s Lost: a bit of a song and dance

It’s an odd play, Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of his least popular creations, widely regarded as difficult and inaccessible.  But at Newcastle’s New Victoria Theatre on Saturday night the ever-reliable Northern Broadsides production made for a really enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

It’s a comedy with a plot so minimal it’s virtually nonexistent: the King of Navarre and three nobles take an oath to devote themselves to study for three years and during that time to eschew the company of women.  Meanwhile the French Princess and her three ladies have arrived in the kingdom and the King  insists that the women make their camp in a field outside of his castle.  Then – well, you know what happens – the men meet the women and instantly all fall comically in love.

Beyond that, there is very little plot development.  The sort of mistakes and misunderstandings that in other Shakespeare plays would lead to complications and plot twists – mis-delivered letters, masks and disguises – are here untangled almost instantly.  Instead, the comedy rests on the extensive word-play, punning and literary allusions bandied about by four young men infatuated with their own verbal and intellectual dexterity.  It’s a bit like an extended metaphysical poem, and reflects that fascination with the scintillating possibilities that characterised intellectual life in the 1590s.  But, as well as demonstrating that he can cut the mustard too, Shakespeare is also taking the mickey: as Michael Billington put it in The Guardian, ‘Shakespeare’s play rejoices in the very verbal virtuosity it is satirising’.

This is what makes it a ‘difficult’ play for modern audiences – a great deal of the comedy passes you by because it relies on the sort of wit and repartee that was clever in the late 16th century, but whose meaning four centuries later can often only be understood by referring to textual footnotes.  Fortunately, there is a lot more to the play, and with a lively production and sensitive acting such as we have here, it can be great fun.

There’s a comic Spanish nobleman (named, ten years after the Armada, Adriano De Armado), pompous and also fond of convoluted word games, and Costard, a country bumpkin who gets the letters mixed up.  There’s a play within a play (with echoes of the one Shakespeare was to have even more fun with in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the following year), and, in this production, much song and dance.

Indeed, towards the end everyone is having a high old time cavorting around the stage singing rustic songs and pledging their troth when abruptly Mercade the messenger enters with news that halts the jollity instantly.  It is as if we’ve been raoaring along at 70 mph and Shakespeare suddenly applies the handbrake.  The princess’s father is dead, and the bubble of youthful exuberance is burst.  Illness, old age and death force their way in, and each young nobleman is forced to make a pledge in which they leave behind their youthful frivolity – one to spend a year with the sick and dying, tasked to make them smile and so weeding the ‘wormwood’ of jests and mockery from his brain. Springtime is gone; it’s winter:

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul

Barrie Rutter (centre) in the Northern Broadsides production

This Northern Broadsides production bursts with energy, music and zestful performance.  The Princess and her three ladies (Sophia Hatfield with Catherine Kinsella, Hester Arden and Rebecca Hutchinson) form a quartet of feisty women who give us as good as they get.  Among the noblemen Matt Connor as the sceptical Berowne gives a fine performance.  There are outstanding portrayals of minor characters, too, among them Adam Fogarty as Costard and Emily Aston as Jacquenetta the milkmaid.  There’s a hilarious bit in the play-within-the-play in which Dean Whatton as the Spaniard’s diminutive page is cast as Hercules and destroys a serpent in a most convincing manner.  But the whole cast succeed in expressing Shakespeare’s convoluted text so fluently that, even if you fail to follow bits of the 16th century word-play, you are still swept along in the overall joie de vivre.

Title page of the first quarto (1598)

This is a twentieth anniversary production for Northern Broadsides – it’s that long since actor Barrie Rutter came up with the idea of presenting a classical play with an all-northern cast. The company he created to do it he called Northern Broadsides, and it’s still going strong. To celebrate, the company thought it would be great to get as many Old Broadsiders back on stage as possible. So each night during the Love’s Labour’s Lost tour, the 16-strong cast will be joined on stage by a guest actor who’s performed with the company at some point over the last 20 years, playing the role of the messenger.

If you go to see this production, buy the programme: there’s a superb introduction to the play written by Mike Poulton in which he discusses various meanings of the title (all those apostrophes) and speculates  on its origins.

See also

2 thoughts on “Love’s Labour’s Lost: a bit of a song and dance

  1. Enjoy – it’s up to the usual Northern Broadsides standard, though the Guardian gave it a qualified review. Some of their comments were justified – when I looked at the text there was far more poetry than I appreciated at the performance. Still a good evening, though.

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