Theatre review – Love’s Labour’s Lost / Love’s Labour’s Won (aka Much Ado About Nothing) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

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Greg Doran’s tenure in charge of the RSC continues with the pairing of two of Shakespeare’s comedies / romances – Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Christopher Luscombe. This time the latter is referred to as Love’s Labour’s Won, the title of one of Shakespeare’s possible lost plays, which was thought to be a follow on to Love’s Labour’s Lost and which some have argued could simply be Much Ado by another name.

It’s easy to see why Much Ado could be seen as a “sequel” to Love’s Labour’s Lost, which despite the frolics and hilarity, ends with the fates of the lovers unknown. In Much Ado, we have a very similar pair of potential lovers in Benedick and Beatrice, who despite being perfect for each other, are unable or unwilling to see it themselves without a little friendly interference!

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Photo by Manuel Harlan

Running in repertoire in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the current RSC productions are a joy to watch and should not be missed if at all possible. Commemorating the centenary of the commencement of World War I hostilities, the productions are set in a Downton-style stately home modelled on Charlecote Park near Stratford-Upon-Avon. Love’s Labour’s Lost (set on the eve of war in 1914) introduces us to the court of Prince Navarre who have all committed themselves to three years of study away from all distractions – that is until the Princess of France and her companions arrive and each man attempts to hide his growing love from his friends. The highlight of the play for me is always the scene in which the men discover the feelings of the others, through hiding and hilarity. I will always adore the staging of this from the RSC’s 2008 production, with David Tennant’s Berowne up a tree, but this version is just as funny and superbly played by each of the actors.

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Photo by Manuel Harlan

Much Ado (set in 1918 as soldiers return home after victory) was however my favourite of the two shows and has become my favourite production of the play to date (sorry David Tennant!). Edward Bennett has grown to be such a fine leading man and his chemistry with Michelle Terry (Beatrice) is wonderful as they spar off each other, before growing to understand their fate is to be together. The gulling scene is very funny and allows Bennett’s comic acting skills to be showcased. Michelle Terry is excellent as Rosalind, but even more so as Beatrice. She is a modern, feisty character, whose wit and intelligence shine through, but she was also able to deliver the weightier, emotional scenes with an impressive power.

The ensemble cast is superb across both productions, but I was especially impressed by Sam Alexander as Don John. I’d not been able to imagine him as a villain and yet he achieves this in a believable way, rather than portraying him as a panto-style baddie.

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Sam Alexander as Don John in Love’s Labour’s Won. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

No review of these productions would be complete without mentioning the gorgeous sets designed by Simon Higlett. These sumptuous interiors are beautiful to look at (I’d happily have lived in them) and they act as another character within the plays. Each production also contains some wonderful music and songs, which compliment the setting perfectly and genuinely make you smile at this bygone era (with CDs available to buy in the RSC shop).

It is yet to be announced whether the productions will follow the recent history plays to London, so I’d strongly recommend a visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the home of the RSC, over the next month if you can. Both plays will also be screened in cinemas as part of the Live From Stratford-Upon-Avon season. Either way, I’m confident you’ll fall for their charms just as I did!

Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado) continue their run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 14th March 2015. More information and ticket availability can be found here. They will also be screened in cinemas as part of the Live From Stratford-Upon-Avon season on 11th February and 4th March respectively and more information can be found here.

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