Love’s Labour Lost: Royal Shakespeare Company, Theatre Royal Haymarket
A couple of weeks ago, some of my friends and I decided to do a Year of Shakespeare: draw up a list of notable productions of plays we hadn’t seen (or wanted to see), and make a concerted effort to check them all off our list. I’d already gotten a jump-start with Twelfth Night, and the RSC’s production of Love’s Labour Lost was drawing to a close, so we had to get a move on.
Love’s Labour Lost (LLL henceforth) is a peculiar beast. It is not one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, for a number of excellent reasons. A major one is its sheer nerdiness: it’s crammed with obscure Latinate jokes and jargon that would have delighted the hearts of law students, but few others. I can completely see undergraduates pissing themselves at its hurricanes of puns, and indeed it feels like the work of a precocious undergraduate: clever, brittle and in places howlingly impressed with itself.
But it also skewers self-important young undergraduates. Specifically, self-important young male undergraduates. And that savagery towards posturing self-regard is one of Shakespeare’s most enduring and valuable preoccupations as a writer.
The story’s simple. The King of Navarre and his three friends have elected to devote themselves to study and abjure all manner of pleasure – notably the society of women. His light-hearted friend Berowne thinks this a ‘barren’ pursuit, but goes along with it begrudgingly, pointing out that the King has forgotten that he’s meant to engage in treaty talks with the daughter of the King of France and her retinue of ladies.
Of course you can guess what happens. The King and his merry band tumble into love with the young ladies and make prize asses of themselves. The girls sass the gentlemen and it’s all going swimmingly…until we hear that the King of France has died.
And this is where the play undergoes Mood Whiplash so swiftly that I was convinced initially that LLL was one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. The Princess must head back with her retinue and take up serious duties, but what of the lovelorn youths they leave behind? Strip yourselves of comforts, say the women. Not ritually, as you were doing before, but in earnest. Look at the sufferings of people other than yourselves. Become men. And then…well, we’ll see.
And it’s then that you realise that you haven’t been watching a fluffy comedy about the humbling and humanising power of love, but a bittersweet meditation on the follies and impermanence of youth. The young men loftily declare that they will dedicate themselves to learning – and that is the naivete and arrogance of youth. They tumble headlong into love at first sight with a gaggle of pretty girls and promptly throw away their vows – and that is the impetuosity of youth. The girls tease and sass them – and that is the cruelty and merriment of youth. The young men are horrified at not being taken seriously – and that is the aching self-consciousness of youth. In fact, it is when the young men say piteously that they meant every one of their fine, overblown words and gifts, and the girls say simply ‘We did not take it so’, that I realised that LLL wasn’t concerned with love, but with growing up. The girls may have to grow up much faster, seeing that they’ve been sent as diplomats and will have to return to assume serious duties – perhaps earlier than they would like. But there is kindness as well as sadness in their parting instructions to the young men. Go do the serious business of living and learning. And after that, if you are still of the same mind – perhaps. Love in Shakespeare is so often instantaneous, even if the lovers don’t always realise it themselves. It is sobering and refreshing for love to come with an asterisk and a ‘Terms and conditions apply’. And in such an early comedy, too.
The RSC’s production was initially tied to the centenary of the First World War, and the setting plays well with the play’s themes of the end of youth and the sense of darker and heavier days ahead. It’s a sumptuous Edwardian country house setting, which is also absolutely right, and the cast is in general fine fettle, particularly – of course – the Benedick-in-training Berowne (Edward Bennett) and the Extremely-Diluted-Rosalind Rosaline (Lisa Dillon, taking over from Michelle Terry in the original run). The famous quadruple-eavesdropping scene (where each of the young men discover the other’s love) is rendered with aplomb. I particularly enjoy the moment Berowne urges his friends to throw away their vows of celibacy in quest of finer, richer knowledge. Bennett mischievously invests the thing with a touch of ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’, which was great fun.
I don’t know if this production has convinced me to add LLL to my roster of plays to watch and rewatch and hoover up any production of, but I enjoyed its tender, bracing ode to putting away childish things.