After the hilarity and all-round entertainment of the RSC’s previous instalment, Love’s Labour’s Lost, it was obvious it would be difficult for Love’s Labour’s Won to match its predecessor’s success. But match it it did, retaining Shakespeare’s sparkling wit, albeit combined with a much more sinister tone. Unlike Love’s Labour’s Lost, Love’s Labour’s Won is a comparably better known play – under a different name. The play known by Shakespeare and his audiences as Love’s Labour’s Won, has over the course of time been lost. However, Gregory Doran, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company after much research, has concluded that the renowned Much Ado could actually be this lost play, hence the choice to stage the plays as a pair.
This duality of the plays was a notion explored frequently throughout the performance, with Lost’s actors performing similar roles in Won. The stories similarly correspond, the soldiers who left for war in Love’s Labour’s Lost have now returned to the women and land they left behind, staying in the house of an acquaintance, Leonato. Claudio, a returning young soldier falls in love with his host’s daughter Hero, whilst his friend Benedick engages in a war of words with Hero’s cousin Beatrice. A heavily edited script allows for the previously Italian setting to be transported to post-war England in 1918, adding a touching sense of poignancy to the many sombre aspects of the play. Indeed, Won for all its happy ending, was portrayed by director Christopher Luscombe and his talented cast, as a darker play, alluding perhaps to the trauma of the First World War. The fantastic Nick Haverson was excellent as the Watch’s Dogberry, capturing the audience’s attention in every scene with his presence and physical comedy, yet adding elements of tragedy with his characterisation of a man with obvious mental trauma, a reminder of the mental scarring and horror of the war.
The play retains Shakespeare’s sparkling wit, albeit combined with a much more sinister tone.
Hero’s fated wedding and ‘death’ were highlights of the performance, with Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s grief truly believable and painful to behold. Similarly, David Horovitch, playing Hero’s father Leonato was a ferocious and frankly intimidating figure – indeed, his threats to kill his beloved daughter made the audience fear for her safety! John Hodgkinson, last seen as the flamboyant Don Armado in Lost, was a strict yet playful and very English Don Pedro, here conceived as the soldiers’ superior, in keeping with the post-war setting. His heavily wounded brother, the villainous Don John, was artfully portrayed by Sam Alexander, whose lameness, it can be conjectured, was the catalyst creating his bitter nature – another reminder of the damaging influence of war.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s grief was truly believable and painful to behold.
Despite the many tragic elements present in the play, the light-hearted comedy and requisite happy ending were of course present. The choice to set the play after the war meant the setting was Christmas 1918, allowing for many comic possibilities in the two ‘gulling’ scenes – where the two protagonists Benedick and Beatrice are made to think the other loves them! As ever, Edward Bennett was astoundingly good in his portrayal of Benedick, whose comic facial expressions, asides to the audience and fantastic hiding place inside the Christmas tree (which led to whisky drinking, a bit of cheeky wiggling, and ultimately electrocution) was hands-down the most comedic scene in the play. In contrast, Michelle Terry’s feminist Beatrice finally realised her love for Benedick in a touching scene in which the maid Ursula (Frances McNamee) was a comic standout.
Overall, the direction and skill of the actors in conveying the tale, combined with the fabulous costumes and flashes of the Jazz Age to come in Nick Hess’ compositions, presented an outstanding production, which if you are a Shakespeare fan is a must-see!