The First Night Feature: Love’s Labour’s Lost

Published April 17, 2008

Students today may have it tough, what with tuition fees, working to finance their studies and exam anxiety, but at least nobody is making them abstain from any contact whatsoever with the opposite sex. Love’s Labour’s Lost begins with the King of Navarre (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and his three friends, Berowne (Trystan Gravelle), Longaville (William Mannering) and Dumaine (David Oakes) swearing an oath to devote themselves to study for three years and to abstain from all the distractions and pleasures of youth – including the company of women. Jo Fletcher-Cross was at Shakespeare’s Globe to see how that worked out…

Their plan is almost scuppered when they remember that the Princess of France (Michelle Terry) is about to pay a visit to the court of Navarre, with her retinue of charming and attractive ladies. But true to his vow, when they arrive, the king will not admit them to the court, but instead offers them space to camp in his parkland. Telling a princess to pitch a tent outside certainly seems like a good way to stop any affections forming.

More than any other Shakespeare play, Love’s Labour’s Lost delights in parries of wit and teasing between the characters, the word play and clever verse rattling the action along in a dazzling display of linguistic capability. The ladies in attendance on the princess are happy to go along with her schemes to outwit the men; in particular the cool and sublimely beautiful Rosaline (Gemma Arterton), whose clipped and clear tones manage to both cut down and entice her suitor, Berowne.

A ludicrous Spanish swordsman, Armado (Timothy Walker) is in love with a buxom young wench, the King and his friends lose their hearts to the ladies the moment they arrive, and a country bumpkin is dispatched to deliver letters to the objects of their affections. Of course, this being a Shakespeare comedy, the letters are delivered to the wrong recipients and the tales of love begin to get tangled. Disguises on the part of both the men – who come to the court in ridiculous Russian dress – and the women, who swap clothes to baffle them, further deepen the confusion.

Claire van Kampen, the former director of music at Shakespeare’s Globe, returns to compose the renaissance-flavoured accompaniment to the action. Bawdy songs, ridiculous romantic airs for the idiotic Spaniard, and beautiful close-part harmony celebrating the glories of spring all create a sweet and sometimes tongue-in-cheek background for the young people to fall in love to, despite their resolutions.

A brutal hunt scene has the princess visibly demonstrating that the balance of power is in her favour when she fires the fatal arrow at the deer being driven towards them by the King. These ladies are not just hunting deer, they are sporting with the affections of the men who go to such foolish lengths to display their love. The princess, however, does not seem to be too keen on hunting, and also not too bothered whether the King is in love with her or not.

Director Dominic Dromgoole skilfully teases the clearest meaning from often obscure phrases, and sets the play firmly in the period in which it was written. Jonathon Fensom’s simple design has picture-book trees 'growing’ from the pillars, and a knot-garden – a common design in Elizabethan times, and mentioned by the King early in the play – represented on the floor going out into the Courtyard.

Does love win in the end? In real life it is never as easy as all that, and the real satisfaction of this hugely enjoyable play is that we are allowed to draw our own conclusions. Not everyone will get what they want, in the end.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 7 October 2007.

JFC