Dominic Dromgoole, you feel, has made every effort to make his production a crowd-pleaser. The stage is arranged so that, even if it’s not exactly in the round, an eddy of the groundling audience is in among the action like the sea around rocks; large hand-held puppets of a hart and hind mingle among us symbolising the hunt for love that ensues; and there’s even a bare bum later on.
Populist productions of Shakespeare are as valid as purist ones. But this version of his warhorse comedy is seriously over-egged. Most of the laughs come via visual gags, directorial invention and business from the players.
It is true that Love’s Labour’s Lost needs all the help it can get. Nowhere else in Shakespeare, for instance, are his sub-plot figures so disparate in themselves and so superfluous to the whole.
As if recognising the problem, Dromgoole draws attention to these oddball protagonists to make them more inclusive. But they end up being the star turns. Christopher Godwin’s Holofernes, the schoolmaster who can “smell false Latin”, is deliciously pompous, spilling over with self-esteem, and John Bett lends the curate, Sir Nathaniel, a learned smugness, all too pleased to keep his head below the social parapet, although Timothy Walker’s Don Adriano is an awkwardly conceived cross between Don Quixote and Manuel from Fawlty Towers, whose laboured Spanish enunciation is often barely decipherable.
All this comes at the expense of clarity. When we meet the King of Navarre and his three cronies vowing to undertake three years’ monkish study – the central plot, after all – they come across as a disparate gang lacking any true nobility.
The women fare better. When the Princess of France appears, trailing her entourage of beauteous ladies-in-waiting, we can at least appreciate the temptations to be resisted. Here Michelle Terry offers a teasing mix of feisty and flirty, while staying the right side of regal. Anchoring the action in some specific time and place beyond stock doublet-and-hose territory could have lent a beneficial contemporary relevance. Instead we get knockabout fun (even a mass brawl), bawdy doubles entendres that were never intended and endemic crotch-cupping, but the production’s hermetic world of lovers and losers lacks a context and ends a ship of fools.
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