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Shades of Downton Abbey in new RSC romantic comedy
Setting Love's Labour's Lost on the eve of the First World War in 1914 is a shrewd move by director Christopher Luscombe for it lifts this play into a much more emotive piece than just a battle of the sexes comedy.
Encompassing the decadence of the Edwardian era, this production by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is hugely entertaining, frivolous and enhanced by gloriously beautiful costumes and sets. But its sophisticated finale also manages to march us from those heady days of fun to the gloom and battlefields of Europe with a menacing beat of an Army drum.
Shades of Downton Abbey in the new production of Love's Labour's Lost
Shakespeare's tale follows the King of Navarre and this three friends Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine as they vow to dedicate themselves to study for three years and shun the company of women. This promise comes at a particularly bad time as they are about to be visited by the attractive Princess of France and her equally beautiful three female companions.
Despite their best efforts to keep the ladies outside of their premises, each of the men falls madly in love and there is much tomfoolery as they try to keep their broken vows from each other.
It runs alongside the equally silly storyline of the pantomime-like Spaniard Don Armado, who is visiting the King and is battling against the daft gardener for the affections of a dairymaid. This draws in other ludicrous locals which makes for some delightful character acting from David Horovitch as ridiculous schoolmaster Holofernes.
Don Armado (John Hodgkinson) and gardener Costard (Nick Haverson) are some of the pantomime-like fun characters in Love's Labour's Lost
In the meantime, the ladies are playing their own tricks by swapping identities at a masked party and making our lovestruck heroes work hard for a date. The men even resort to dressing up as dancing Russian cossacks to court their loves in disguise complete with bizarre accents. It's all good, laugh out loud fun.
What makes this play work so well is how wonderfully choreographed many of the scenes are, often to a delightful soundtrack of romantic overtures and tongue firmly in cheek. There's a witty nod to old romantic cliches, like Don Armado tinkling the ivories of a grand piano as a servant sings and dances around the living room in vintage Hollywood movie fashion.
Gorgeous costumes in Love's Labour's Lost
The outstanding scene comes just ahead of the interval, when each man in turn heads up to the rooftop at night to read a love letter and ends up hiding and eventually being caught out by their friends. Dumaine (actor Tunji Kasim) is the comic fall guy as he stands woefully wearing his pyjamas and clutching a teddy bear, who is the most inspired prop of the production.
Actor Edward Bennett as Berowne is a strong comic lead among the gentry but its John Hodgkinson as Don Armado and Nick Haverson as Costard whose over-the-top buffoonery endear the crowd through the 2h 35min performance (including a 20min interval).
Edward Bennett as Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost by the RSC.
The fine costumes and scenery do add a shade of TV show Downton Abbey to the proceedings, especially the set, which is a painstaking recreation of Charlecote Hall in Warwickshire with its Elizabethan splendour of red brick turrets, pointed rooves and green lawns.
While the red poppies dotted around the garden are a timely touch to later scenes when our four friends will be swapping their debonair evening attire for army uniforms.
Michelle Terry as Rosaline in the RSC production of Love's Labour's Lost
This play has been matched for the first time with Love's Labour's Won (Much Ado About Nothing) by the RSC, which performs during the same Winter Season. Both of them are set around the First World War with Love's Labour's Lost ahead of it in 1914 and Love's Labour's Won at its close in 1918.
Of the two, this one is the more raucous and light-hearted but the adaptations make them a good fit and it is worth seeing both, although they feature very different characters but in similar settings.
This production is grand in every sense - for its opulent appearance, its superb comic acting and as a grand day out.
Love's Labour's Lost
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Until March 14, 2015
Tickets cost £10 - £62.50 by calling 0844 800 1110 or visiting the RSC website.