I can’t imagine how many times I’ve started a review of an Oxford Shakespeare Company production with the observation that it is a sheer pleasure and a privilege to sit in the gardens of beautiful Wadham College, armed with one’s picnic and bottle of Prosecco, sprawled out on a rug, having already bagsiesed one’s front row seats for yet another delightful OSC production. If that number of times = x, then this year we’re looking at x+1. And if that’s a rather pompous and overly scholastic way of looking at it, then that’s absolutely perfect for this much overlooked early Shakespearean comedy that makes fun of (inter alia) scholasticism and its practitioners. This year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined not only by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William, but also by our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra together with their Mum and Dad. Definitely fun for all the family.
I’ve only seen Love’s Labour’s Lost twice before, both times at the Pendley Shakespeare Festival near Tring – and, curiously enough, the second occasion was on 6th August 1998, exactly 18 years to the day before we saw this Oxford Shakespeare Company production. Well, I thought it was interesting anyway. You know how most Shakespearean comedies have four couples (often one very senior in status, and one very lowly) and at the end they all get together and marry? Well that’s exactly what you think is going to happen in LLL, but just at the last minute a messenger brings bad news that puts an end to all the jollity and causes the females to go back to the traditional courtly requirements of their suitors; namely that they should pine away in abstinence for a year, before the ladies will consider their suits in earnest. The words of Mercury are indeed harsh after the songs of Apollo. The labour of love is lost.
In a nutshell, the men have forsworn (again inter alia) the company of women for three years in the pursuit of learning and all round betterment. Therefore, there is much fun to be had by ridiculing their hapless attempts to keep their inability to stop thinking with their dicks when by chance they meet the Princess of France and her Ladies in waiting. I’m sorry if that was a little crude for you, but Shakespeare is very keen to show the juxtaposition between courtly and non-courtly behaviour. There’s a big contrast between the wannabe courtly behaviour of the nobles, and the nipple-tassle-twirling antics of the country wench Jaquenetta and her lascivious f-buddy Costard the Clown.
Added to this, somewhere between these two extremes, you find Don Adriano de Armado, the fantastical Spaniard, with pretensions to nobility but with a liability to indulge his frankly disgusting shoe fetish (ladies in the front row watch out) and a desire to, above all, get his leg over. Yes, gentle reader, this really is Shakespeare at his least politically correct. It’s a battle royale between the courtly, ephereal love and wham bam thank you ma’am. There were times when the Special Agent wanted the earth to open up and swallow her as she is of that age where the mention of anything sexual in the presence of her relatives is the epitome of embarrassment. How we tittered at her discomfort.
One of the trademarks of an Oxford Shakespeare Company production – especially the comedies – is that you know it’s going to be played for laughs. Unusually for us, this time we attended an evening production, which means the second act takes on a more mysterious vibe, with garden shadows emphasised by the artificial lighting on the stage, as the August night begins to draw in. Nevertheless, this did not impinge upon the general level of hilarity that had been emanating from the stage all evening. Nicholas Green’s production is set in the 1970s, which gives the costume department the enormous fun of finding really tasteless 70s outfits for the guys to wear – the girls were wearing largely timeless elegant/trendy clothes depending on the scene. The 70s were my teenager years, gentle reader, and for me Adrian Lillie’s costume design was a delightful nostalgic trip down Memory Lane. Primarily, I was really jealous of Berowne’s double-denim look; that was me down to a tee. I also always wanted a safari jacket like Boyet’s, although I wouldn’t have chosen a lilac one like his. Whilst the Secret Agent couldn’t contain her laughter at how appalling the styles were, I was just wondering how much weight I would have to lose to be able to fit the King of Navarre’s rather trendy brown striped flares. (Answer: quite a lot.)
Another trademark of the OSC is their inventive use of music, where sections of the text suddenly become part of a song rather than just the simple spoken word. This production isn’t quite Love’s Labour’s Lost – The Musical, but it’s not far from it. Many of the actors are dab hands with their instruments too, and there’s a lot of entertaining guitar work throughout the show. I was particularly impressed with the very funky finale comprising When Icicles Hang By The Wall and Other Greatest Hits. Simple staging with a few plinths and a set of stairs to nowhere admirably recreated both the King of Navarre’s palace and the parkland outside. As usual, a few liberties were taken with the text, including making Nathaniel a black-ballooned mute (saves on learning the words after all), and making Dull the Constable a WPC (women can be thick too). Costard enlists the help of a front-row theatregoer with reading the letters that both Berowne and Don Armado have entrusted him to deliver (to the wrong recipients, naturally) and when his mistake comes to light he blames the poor chap in the front row (“and that goes for you too, Peter!”)
The four noblemen bring a whiff of caviar with them as the four frozen Muscovites, all beards and Cossacks and so nearly breaking into a chorus of Kalinka. The ludicrousness of Berowne being able to hide on stage to observe his three companions individually sighing for love is highlighted by his standing on a plinth and hiding behind his guitar (not much of a hiding place, to be fair); and Jaquenetta raises the spirits and much more besides of the King when she addresses him, with her knee rubbing up and down his groin so that he loses his voice. As I said – played for laughs. And it all works tremendously well – this is just about the most accessible and understandable LLL you’ll ever see, and I’d forgotten what a really funny play it is.
Then of course there is the cast of ten young actors who throw their heart and soul into it and give some terrific performances. Berowne (what is it with this calling him Biron in the programme?) is a gift of a role and Dominic Rye seizes all the opportunities to bring out the comedy and pathos of the character. He’s a lazy self-indulgent oaf, and a hypocrite; but also a rather touching wooer and prone to vulnerability when his lady looks the other way; a real Everyman character and you really identify with him. Owen Pullar, too, does a great job of bringing the King to life, emphasising at first his nobility but quickly contrasting that with his all too human frailties. His scene welcoming the Princess of France to his palace was hilarious, saying she can’t actually come inside because of the oath he has sworn, but nevertheless, here’s the palace, ta-daa!!
Victoria Blunt’s Princess is a very classy act, a natural leader for her ladies in waiting, outwardly expecting the respect that goes with her status, but inside behaving badly just like one of the girls; until Mercade brings news of her father’s death, at which point she instantly grows up and matures. It’s a really strong performance. She’s also hilarious as the slutty Jaquenetta, silently taking the mickey out of all the respectable people, encouraging one of the men in the front row to read her letter just as she stuffs it down her cleavage.
Alice Coles – Viola in last year’s Twelfth Night – doubles up as a beautiful and almost demure Lady Maria and a spirited gutsy Moth (that’s the character, not an example of Lepidoptera). Kirsten Obank is a refined Lady Katharine and a delightfully dull Dull; and Georgina Hellier is full of allure as Lady Rosaline, with all the chutzpah and togetherness you’d need if you were going to be in charge of Berowne for the rest of your life. Guido Garcia Lueches brings great comic skill and verbal shenanigans to the role of Don Armado, part Latino Romeo, part Pinochet, spitting his sibilants in the face of all and sundry. He actually reminded me of the young Brian Rix. He also played a very studious looking Dumain, although you sensed he was never going to be a Straight A Student.
Thomas Judd is a hilarious Costard, delightfully gangly and stupid, giggling when he should have been paying attention, like the naughtiest boy in the school; playing Pompey with all the dignity he could muster (not much.) Christopher Laishley is a splendidly pompous and big-headed schoolteacher as Holofernes (despite assaulting me under the chin) as well as doubling up as Lord Boyet, frantically trying to keep a bunch of schoolgirls out of harm’s way; and George Whitehead is wonderfully wet-behind-the-ears as the lovelorn Longueville and the dark menacing presence of Mercade.
We all absolutely loved it; for most of the evening it was Laugh Out Loud On Repeat. Great rapport with the crowd (it was totally packed last Saturday night), a lovely sense of the occasion and, I should point out, a technically perfect performance by everyone. We’ve caught this near the end of the run, you have just until 19th August to catch it – but you surely should as it’s one of the funniest Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. Huge congratulations to all!
The fantastic production photographs are by Ben Galpin