Restricting ourselves to just two Shakespeare comedies on the same day seems like a mere bagatelle in comparison with the Young Chekhov trilogy we saw in Chichester this time last year. An interesting contrast in fact; because everyone thinks of Chekhov as being dark and dismal, whereas Platonov, in particular, was a complete riot; and everyone thinks of Shakespeare comedies as being heaps of lightweight fun resulting in multiple weddings, whereas these two plays have more than their fair share of sinister undercurrents and both leave you at the end with a certain degree of discomfort that unsettles your laughter.
I mustn’t walk before I run. Our Chichester weekends are always a celebration of love, life and having a good time. Thus, we were joined not only by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William, but also Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The six of us ate and drank our way through lunch at the Minerva Brasserie (I can’t tell you how recommended that experience is), late night dinner at Cote (always a pleasure) followed by the gorgeous gluten-free fry-up breakfast at Spires on Sunday morning. All this and we even got to see a couple of plays too – Love’s Labour’s Lost in the afternoon and Much Ado in the evening – sounds like the story of my life. They’d been playing in repertory for the previous four weeks; in fact, we saw the final performances of both plays in Chichester; but worry ye not, they will be returning, no doubt revitalised, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in time for Christmas.
We’d seen the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost earlier in the year. I’m very fond of this play, and for some reason, feel very well acquainted with it. By contrast, I’m not at all familiar with Much Ado About Nothing; I’ve only seen it performed on stage once before, a semi-professional production at the Pendley Festival in Tring in 1995. We did, however, catch the delightful film version three years ago. The film probably isn’t much help in preparing you for this production by Christopher Luscombe, as it’s already a very modern take on the original. Mr Luscombe’s double-header of Shakespeare was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014 and I’m not surprised it’s come back with a vengeance because it’s an absolutely first rate production.
We’re no longer in the sixteenth century, for Mr Luscombe has transplanted these plays to the twentieth, with Love’s Labour’s Lost set in the summer of 1914 and Much Ado at Christmas 1918, like two bookends either side of the First World War. Simon Higlett’s fantastic set serves both plays, appearing more like an Oxbridge college in LLL and a gentleman’s club in Much Ado. The flexible set glides in and out over the stage, sometimes lingering on the end of a scene as it slowly retreats into the back darkness, giving additional emphasis to whatever final image was presented. Nigel Hess’ incidental music, played with West End show stopping aplomb by Bob Broad’s excellent band, comes across a little incongruous at first, but gradually provides a Hollywood movie-type accompaniment to every dramatic development. It works really well, although it’s not really 1910s in feel, more 30s-40s. There are also a few songs scattered throughout the plays – they don’t quite make them into musicals as such, but again they help to provide a vintage, retro feel to the whole thing.
The two plays have been associated together for this production because there is reason to suggest that Much Ado is, in fact, the missing Shakespearian play Love’s Labour’s Won. Personally, I haven’t delved into the analysis of how likely this is, but I do appreciate that the two plays make an excellent pairing. In LLL a very funny story of love developing between four young and rather charming people comes to a sudden and sad end when the news of her father’s death forces the Princess to retreat into mourning, thus requiring her followers to do the same – sorry if I spoiled it for you there. If after a twelvemonth of hermit-like abstinence, the King still feels the same way about the Princess then he is invited to renew his wooing (and his followers can do the same.) However, in a throat-chokingly moving final scene, we all realise that the likelihood of that renewal of affection in a year’s time is comparatively unlikely. In Much Ado, the fortunes are reversed; an honourable but gullible soldier is tricked into believing that his beloved is inconstant with her affections – indeed, it’s alleged she’s having it away with all and sundry. But the plot against him is discovered, the lovers are reunited (there’s an awful lot of forgiveness that has to take place) and together with the infamously bickering Beatrice and Benedick, all four get married and live happy ever after Or so we presume.
Both productions make the most of the comic opportunities that arise from both the text and Mr Luscombe’s vision of what’s really going on. For example, Much Ado features the extraordinarily funny scene where Benedick is hiding in order to listen in to Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s conversation about how Beatrice adores him. On the one hand, you have the challenges facing the three conspirators of how best to spin their yarn so that Benedick is hoodwinked, whilst trying to come up with these ideas off the top of their heads. On the other, you have Benedick, allegedly hidden, popping up at odd angles within the ostentatious Christmas tree that has been standing with enormous pride in the corner of the stage, enduring every humiliation under the sun that could be associated with Yuletide Alpine foliaged concealment. It’s a combination of brilliant comic timing and slapstick and works a treat.
There are also some moments when your laughter catches in your breath as you realise the stark awfulness of someone’s suffering. Normally I would dread the performance of a character such as Dogberry, the hapless constable who’s always just a slapstick figure of fun. It’s the kind of thing you’d think had them rolling in the aisles in the 1590s but today seems immensely tedious. This is precisely what you expect to see in this production too, with Dogberry’s malapropisms and nervous tics; an almost cartoon version of reality. The prison scene, where Dogberry gets the criminals in front of the Sexton to finally hear their case, starts off as classic slapstick comedy but develops into something that really digs deep into the heart of Dogberry. It’s a stunning coup de theatre that genuinely arises from the characterisation and the plot development, and I was shocked. There’s a similar, but lighter, exposé in LLL, when Dumain joins the other three lads on the roof secretly to declare his love for his lady. I think there are few things more rewarding in a modern Shakespeare production than the sight of a cuddly toy. It’s very funny indeed – and deep down, ever so slightly disturbing.
Mr Luscombe has brought together a superbly talented cast to create two fantastic shows that bring these old stories to life with all the freshness and relevance as if they were written yesterday. At their heart are two effervescent performances by Edward Bennett as Berowne (LLL) and Benedick (MAAN). We’ve seen Mr Bennett a few times – notably when he stood in as Hamlet whilst David Tennant was indisposed, and also in Plenty at Sheffield – but I think with his current performances he really secures his position as one of our finest practitioners of Shakespeare. Even if the language is a little intractable, you still understand every nuance of what he says; his amazingly gifted facial expressions tell a thousand tales. He’s master of all the moods; not only can he bring the house down, as in the Christmas Tree scene, but he can also deliver, with perfect solemnity, the regretful speeches of Berowne, after the Princess’ father has been reported dead. He can also create the passionate and stirring sentiment that encourages the other three students into full-time pursuit of their ladies. Opposing him – and a perfect match for him – are his Rosaline and Beatrice, in the form of Lisa Dillon. Like all the LLL ladies, Ms Dillon’s Rosaline is coquettish but ruthless, fun-loving and emotional in her coping with her suitor. As Beatrice, she’s on fire from the very first scene where she spars with Benedick; but she also conveys the perplexed Beatrice – who overhears the others say the Benedick is in love with her – with a beautiful mix of comedy and warmth. And there’s a true chill in her voice when she demands reparation for the harm Claudio has done to her sister’s reputation.
Sam Alexander is excellent in both his roles, perhaps particularly in the more rewarding role of the King of Navarre in LLL, as he has further to fall in embarrassment when his hypocrisy is found out. His Don John is – literally – a tight-lipped evil bastard, sourly looking on with his bandaged leg and crutches – is being wounded in the war sufficient reason for him to be bitterly vengeful against Claudio and Hero? Mr Alexander portrays him as a cold fish who doesn’t show his hand, and it’s very convincingly performed. Tunji Kasim also gives us two enjoyable performances as the wet-behind-the ears Dumain and the slightly more noble but only slightly less wet Claudio, where his refined nobility shines through, albeit devalued by his feeble lack of perception. There were some gasps from audience members – who obviously didn’t know the story – in the church scene when he renounced Hero and delivered his blistering invective against her. It’s as Dumain though that we remember him fondly as he still clings on to his bedside teddy through thick and thin.
One of my favourite actors, Steven Pacey, is back on the Chichester stage in the roles of Holofernes in LLL and Leonato in Much Ado. Magnificently pompous as the erudite Holofernes, one of the comic highlights of the production is his reaction to John Arthur’s Sir Nathaniel, when he offers him the back-handed compliment, learned without opinion. A great portrayal of an utter windbag. His Leonato, though, is stunning ; we joyfully laugh along when, with his other conspirators, he is teasing Benedick in the Christmas Tree scene; but we’re shattered by his realisation that Hero’s reputation has been besmirched by Claudio – here’s a man torn between love for his daughter and traditional respectability, and with nowhere to go but to cry his eyes out in the pews.
Leah Whitaker gives a strong performance as the Princess of France, relishing her job as chief tease to the suitors, and loving her mockery of the King of Navarre for his idiotic pomposity; then giving way to dignified grieving when Marcade brings the news her father has died, which absolutely signifies the end of celebrations. Even the final song of Icicles hanging by the wall has at truly mournful feel to it; the words of Mercury have totally put paid to the songs of Apollo. John Hodgkinson provides an enjoyably melodramatic Don Armado, bringing out all the traditional humour of the role (emphasising the J’s as H’s, calling his learned companions “men of piss”, and so on) – which contrasts with his very plain and straightforward playing of Don Pedro: respectable, hearty, uncomplicated. It’s a generous performance of quite a bland role against which he allows the other more interesting characters to shine.
The other truly stand out performance from both plays is from Nick Haverson as Costard and Dogberry. His Costard is a slovenly but over-confident wretch who embodies the comic spirit of the “lower orders” – and he plays a brilliant scene with Berowne as he compares emolument with remuneration like a mischievous Jack Russell. His Dogberry, however, bears hard his responsibilities and frustrations and shows the signs of a life that is only faintly succeeding. When he is pushed just that little bit too far as he tries to bring the villains to book, his reaction astounds and overwhelms you. I’ve never seen a Shakespearean clown figure portrayed in such a light before. It knocks you sideways.
All the cast give excellent ensemble support throughout; Rebecca Collingwood is a very moving and despairing Hero; Peter McGovern in fine voice as Moth; Chris Nayak insidious as the manipulative Borachio; Chris McCalphy delightfully dull as Dull; William Belchambers a snide Conrade; Jamie Newall a prissy Boyet; Paige Carter a charming Maria. It would be tedious to mention the entire cast, but everyone played a vital part in creating the magic of this double-header production.
Their season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket begins on 9th December and continues to 18th March. Two fantastic shows that I couldn’t recommend more strongly!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan