Love's Labour's Lost

Wed 30th May – Sat 2nd June 2012

reviews

Simon Thomas

at 00:45 on 31st May 2012

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There are few of Shakespeare’s plays better suited to Trinity Term than 'Love’s Labour’s Lost': it all kicks off, after all, with the promise ‘to live and study here three years.’ The programme is rather optimistic in calling this Shakespeare’s ‘wittiest comedy’ (excuse me, 'Much Ado About Nothing' would like a word) but if you’re in the mood for puns and slapstick which will still make you feel cultured, then this production in beautiful Christ Church Cathedral Garden is absolutely perfect, whether or not your own three years of academe are up.

Ferdinand, King of Navarre (Chris Bland, and most especially his wonderfully animated eyebrows) and his two noblemen (Longaville having been cut, it seems) have sworn celibacy during their period of study. While Dumain (Moritz Borrmann) is content to go along with the plan, Biron (a buoyant John-Mark Philo) is less keen. Cue all manner of wordplay and capers, until Biron agrees to go along with the oath. Although the frenetic action of the play is presumably a directorial decision by Tommo Fowler, Philo’s physical comedy – sprawling limbs and gambolling all around the audience – is largely to thank for the energy of the show. It is this consistent liveliness which places the focus on slapstick and the absurd, rather than the romance plot – a very wise decision, as it is a much richer vein to tap in an early Shakespeare comedy which glorifies in being more show than substance.

Ah, yes, the romance plot. Having sworn not to consort with women, the King et al cannot be aware of the beauties who will soon appear. The Princess of France and her ladies Rosaline and Katharine (played by Georgia Waters, Katherine Skingsley, and Claire Parry) arrive – think Lindsay Lohan’s 'Mean Girls', in 1920s dresses, spitting Elizabethan courtly insults. Holly Morse’s costume designs are brilliant, and the flapper dresses somehow fit perfectly with the ladies’ barbed independence. They have plans of their own – which involve, naturally, masks and switched identities. It wouldn’t be a Shakespearean comedy otherwise, would it?

As always with Shakespeare’s comedies, there is a subplot more bizarre than the main storyline. In 'Love’s Labour’s Lost', indeed, there are several. Michael Beale borrows his accent from the Go Compare adverts to play Armado, a daft swordsman in romantic rivalry with Mikey Blake’s Costard for the hand (or other available body parts) of Jacquenetta (Jo Murray, all red lipstick and pouting). A play-within-a-play is developed, where all the secondary characters act heroes of history and myth – tiny Zoe Bullock is especially amusing as Moth playing the infant Hercules in battle with a snake. Usually such subplots are best considered opportunities to flick through the programme, but here they all add the surreal exuberance of the play.

Among a talented cast, it isn’t actually one of the main players who most impresses. Rather, it is Ellie Warde, playing the teacher Holofernes. Shakespeare has given Holofernes the wonderful trait of listing synonyms whenever speaking – ‘the sky, the welkin, the heaven […] terra, the soil, the land, the earth’ – but Warde (taking a traditionally male role) is able to find double entendres which even Shakespeare, king of the double entendre, probably did not intend. When in conversation with a diffident Sir Nathaniel (Liam Steward-George) Warde’s glances and blushes as she begins the line ‘undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained’ are a joy to watch. Throughout her relatively few allotted lines, Warde makes the very most of every word and expression – a truly gifted comic actress who deserves a far larger part in her next production.

'Love’s Labour’s Lost' is never going to be one of Shakespeare’s most poignant plays, and some of it is simply ridiculous – it’s the sort of play where a borrowed string of pearls constitutes the most impenetrable disguise – but, with exams looming for many, Oxford keenly needs a dose of the spirited silliness dished up here by Shakespeare and this delightful cast and crew.

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Sorcha Kurien-Walsh

at 01:28 on 31st May 2012

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"Love’s Labour’s Lost" is one of Shakespeare’s odd, early comedies, but one that has a special place in my heart. Its humour relentlessly and self-consciously verbal; the plot scholarly and bittersweet. Consequently, it is less frequently performed that Shakespeare’s other comedies. The plot concerns the King of Navarre and his court, who have sworn to abstain from the company of women. Unfortunately, the Princess of France and her attendants have decided to visit, and for diplomatic reasons cannot be ignored. Shakespearian antics involving mistaken identities and swapped letters ensue, though with a surprisingly understated conclusion.

Staged in the Cathedral Garden of Christ Church College, the production succeeds in exploiting the parallels between the studious scholars and the cast. References to sleepless nights and a torturous three years of study drew laughs from the audience. Ellie Wade in the role of the pedant Holofernes was suitably donnish. Given such promising material, it is a pity that despite some good performances and innovative ideas, Rough-Hewn’s production does not quite come off. Part of the problem is the picturesque location itself; the cast were in the unenviable position of having to project their voices against the noise of the Cathedral bells, traffic and voluble birdlife. Despite valiant efforts, I still missed much of the dialogue, though the three scholars fared better than the rest of the cast. Given that most of the play's charm is in its playful use of language, this was disappointing to say the least. Furthermore, the actors struggled to fill the expansive performing area; conversations were conducted across improbably large distances.

Nevertheless there were several very good performances. Georgia Waters and Chris Bland were suitably regal as the Princess of France and King of Navarre. Zoe Bullock was wonderful in the part of Moth. John-Mark Philo plays Biron with confidence; more than any other member of the cast, he seemed at ease with the play’s dense language, and is to be commended for drawing out its complicated conceits and word play. However, I found that he was too exuberant to be convincingly lovesick. In general, the production’s focus on broad comedy, whilst well-performed, does not do justice to the more sober parts of the play. “Love’s Labour’s Lost” satirises its would-be academics, but it still requires that the audience maintain some sympathy for them. When their troubles are simply played for laughs, as was often the case, the poignant and surprising ending loses its urgency; it is meaningless if nothing were at stake in the first place.

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