The Globe Theatre takes a difficult Shakespeare play and makes it "swift, effervescent and easy"

October 31, 2009

A lesson for Kenneth Branagh

Steve Cohen

Broad Street Review

The Globe Theatre of London has taken one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays and made it look easy. Love’s Labour’s Lost is a challenge– not because it has a long and taxing central role, and not because its plot is complicated. Actually, the story is simple and straightforward, and the lines are spread evenly among a group of players.

Rather, Love’s Labour’s Lost is hard to read because the rhymes are so omnipresent that you want to slow down and sound out the words in your mind, thus interfering with the story’s progress. And it’s hard to stage because of a similar temptation to pause for the punch lines, as it were— to have the characters wait and smile after each bon mot.

The Globe production, premiered at its home in London in 2007 and now on an American tour with most of the same cast, is swift and effervescent. The rhyming couplets are played as normal conversation, and the lines are made clear to the audience by the players’ facial expressions and body language.

(A superb musical in rhyming couplets— Chasing Nicolette, with music by David Friedman and book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg— premiered at the Prince Music Theater in 2004. It communicated with the audience and has been unjustly overlooked until a production last month at the Village Theater in Everett, Washington.)

Males-only rule overturned

Love’s Labour’s Lost includes instrumental accompaniment and songs. The music is played by Renaissance guitar, horns, viol, shawm and sackbut, a trademark of Globe productions.

Another Globe tradition has been the assumption of female roles by men. The Bard used young boys, and recent Globe productions have cast men, but the company follows this male-only tradition on a case-by-case basis; and this time, artistic director Dominic Dromgoole has overruled it.

With gorgeous costumes, athletic staging and excellent acting, this version of Love’s 
Labour’s Lost provides sufficient entertainment to make you wonder why Kenneth Branaugh had so little trust in the material that he re-wrote it as a film musical with 1920s songs.

The play’s dazzling display of words and its rhyming couplets indicate that it came early in Shakespeare’s career, around the time of Romeo and Juliet, when he was about 30.

A real king, fictionalized

The story concerns a young king of Navarre (along the Pyrenees between what’s now France and Spain) who tells his three closest friends that for three years his court will be devoted to ascetic study– and, to keep distractions to a minimum, no women will be allowed within a mile. But when the daughter of the king of France arrives for a diplomatic visit with three companions, the gentlemen fall in love with them, each attempting to hide his infatuation from the others. Eventually they choose to break their oaths and win over the women.

A real King of Navarre actually did marry the daughter of a French king; with financial and military support from Queen Elizabeth of England, he became Henry IV of France in 1589, when Shakespeare was 25. And like Shakespeare’s fictitious king, the real Henry IV promoted the arts and expanded the Louvre. A statue of him stands on the Pont Neuf in Paris.

Playing with language for laughs

Shakespeare often set his plays in foreign lands– Venice, Verona, Vienna, just to mention the V’s– but he wanted his London audiences to recognize the characters and relate to their universal traits. Therefore it is correct to have Navarese characters speak with normal British accents, as they do here.

In two scenes, Shakespeare breaks his own rule and plays with language for laughs. In one, a schoolmaster and a curate carry on a pretentious conversation in Latin that baffles the other characters. In the penultimate act, the noblemen woo their ladies by disguising themselves as Muscovites, with heavy Russian accents and brocaded robes. Their faces are covered with fur hats, but they don’t fool the women one bit. The scene presages some of what Mozart and DaPonte wrote two centuries later in Cosi fan tutte, where two men disguise themselves as Albanians to woo each other’s fiancées.

A comical braggart

A standout in the cast is Paul Ready as Don Adriano de Armado, “a fantastical Spaniard,” whose name is a pun about England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, just six or seven years before Shakespeare wrote the play. Ready is sad-eyed, with a shy smile and hesitant manner. He is a comical braggart and a conspicuously strange outsider whose accent sometimes recalls Borat from Kazakhstan.

Another is Fergal McElherron as Costard, the clown. He possesses the stature and strut of Johnny Puleo from the Harmonica Rascals, and he plays his part with wonderful humor as well as a quicksilver, threatening intelligence.

I also loved Michelle Terry as the Princess of France, with her unpretentious, bantering quips, and Thomasin Rand as Rosaline, a gorgeous brunette who helped me accept the abandonment of single-sex casting. The dozen others in the cast were all fine, and Dromgoole’s direction accented the virtuoso verbal play: fast moving and physical without resorting to slapstick.