“I did not think I should live till I were married”
In a brief programme note, Gregory Doran declares he’s “sticking his neck out” to suggest that Much Ado About Nothing may also have been known as Love’s Labour’s Won during Shakespeare’s lifetime and thus makes a novel yet inspired partnership with Love’s Labour’s Lost in an RSC double bill. Whether true or not is by and by in the end (though Shakespearean scholars will doubtless disagree) as Christopher Luscombe’s cross-cast productions combine to great effect as well as standing proud in their own right in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Where Love’s Labour’s Lost was set just before the outbreak of the Great War, Love’s Labour’s Won picks up English society as peace has finally been achieved and the Christmas of 1918 might at last be a merry one and from the outset, it feels like a more fitting interpretation. Beatrice’s independence of mind having been nurtured by the freedom of being able to work; Don John arriving as a soul-weary, battle-scarred PTSD sufferer; the rush of Claudio, Benedick, even Pedro to thoughts of marriage an emotional response to an unimaginably traumatic conflict – there’s a pleasing fit to it all.
And so the play, already poignant in its redemptive theme, gains added resonance and a respectful sense of celebration. Edward Bennett’s Benedick is an earnest creature, most amusingly concealed whilst being gulled, but it is Michelle Terry’s Beatrice that is the shining light here. Vibrantly coutured and coiffed, it’s tempting to see her as a woman for whom the enforced spinsterhood of wartime was as much a choice as a necessity, and her reading of the text is full of intelligent surprises – a telling pause makes “…a star danced…” even more beautiful than usual, her despair at Hero’s initial fate simply heart-rending.
Around them, Sam Alexander’s glowering, limping Don John is well-judged and well-partnered by Chris Nayak’s troublemaking Borachio (a little influenced by Thomas-from-Downton perhaps?), Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Hero is a bastion of almost impossible purity and John Hodgkinson makes Don Pedro a benevolent but tough leader. And a kind of Dad’s Army-inspired take on the Watch scenes, led by Nick Haverson’s Dogberry, has a certain charm – mostly lost on me to be sure but the source of one exquisitely played piece of visual humour.
The shift in time period has a wonderful sonic impact too, Nigel Hess’ music evokes a Noël Coward/Cole Porter kind of feel – Harry Waller’s Balthasar taking on much of the load effortlessly – and when augmented with the joyous choreography of the finale, there’s a real sense of just how much is being celebrated here, the relief of a nation no longer at war. Being more familiar with this play than others, I noticed the cuts more here but the overall sense of pace means that little is truly missed in this evocative and emotional telling of the story.
Seeing the two parts of this double bill on the same day also has the intriguing consequence of suggesting parallels between the two, that …Lost might figure as something of a sequel to …Won with the First World War sandwiched inbetween. It’s a fanciful notion rather than a fully-fleshed one in the end, Berowne and Rosalind and Benedick and Beatrice are still two separate couples even if the satisfaction of seeing the latter finally come together is heightened by seeing Terry and Bennett work so effectively and engagingly through both tales.