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Reviewed: Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Some would argue that the most notable thing about Love’s Labour’s Lost is that it was apparently followed up by one of William Shakespeare’s “lost masterpieces”, Love’s Labour’s Won. If you watch The Shakespeare Code, the second episode of Doctor Who Series 3, that’s certainly the impression you get. The Bard-to-be even shows up on stage at the end to tell the audience, “I know what you’re all saying. Love’s Labour’s Lost — that’s a funny ending, isn’t it? It just stops. Will the boys get the girls? Well, don’t get your hose in a tangle: you’ll find out soon.”

In this respect, Love’s Labour’s Lost is often overlooked, often forgotten about, often unloved.

And that’s a monumental shame because on its own, it’s magnificent.

The latest interpretation is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, with Emily Burns, Associate Director of the National Theatre, making her RSC debut. It kicks off a new season of performances, and a new thrill for this reviewer. I’ve always loved Shakespeare and always wanted to see a live play; any previous experiences have come from reading the author’s work, watching films, and through the excellent National Theatre Live events which bring theatre to cinema screens. It’s only recently that I’ve found myself thinking, “what’s stopping you?” So: a new season, a play I knew next to nothing about, and excellent company. The time felt right.

Love’s Labour’s Lost immediately introduces its leads: Ferdinand (Abiola Owokoniran); Berowne (Luke Thompson); Longaville (Eric Stroud); and Dumaine (Brandon Bassir) — the king and his attending lords, all of whom take the pledge to put aside thoughts of women and love for three years, in order to focus on education and self-improvement. Berowne is initially sceptical of the idea, and points out to the king that his not being able to even speak to a woman won’t be possible: he has a visiting princess (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) and her ladies — Rosaline (Ioanna Kimbook), Maria (Sarita Gabony), and Katherine (Amy Griffiths) — to host. Indeed, it’s Berowne who immediately sees the error of the oath, even when it’s assigned an asterisk with terms and conditions, if only for selfish reasons; he seems to see that there is no growth without the opportunity to love, to learn from others, to be open to the world; for a short time, he’s the one of the foursome to share the audience’s feelings about their dumb devotion to abstinence. Then, of course, Berowne, too, is pulled into the mechanics of the skit and it’s left only to Costard (Nathan Foad) to acknowledge this.

There are four guys who are sworn off women, and then four women turn up. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what happens; though it does take a genius to write it so beautifully.

Much of the plot unfolds as you’d expect, but Shakespeare is so brilliant because that doesn’t matter in the slightest: he indulges in this dramatic irony and draws it out for all its worth. Love’s Labour’s Lost works so well because it’s absolutely joyous, and the 2024 interpretation exacerbates that, welcoming in seasoned Shakespeare devotees and newcomers. In fact, this might be the perfect play for anyone who hasn’t experienced Shakespeare’s work before. As with most of his comedies, there’s a lot to appreciate right there and then, to make you burst out laughing at the puns or sheer ridiculousness of the situation, but also a lot to cause this blissful undercurrent of elation. Reading the play afterwards, I was struck by how many sexual allusions it gets away with, but if you don’t get the linguistic gags, there’s still more than enough to make you roar with laughter (including, in this season opener, a rather unexpected song that seemed to take everyone by surprise).

Excuse this novice, but perhaps the greatest thing about seeing Love’s Labour’s Lost live was being a part of this thriving mass of happiness — a crowd of old and young, of all classes, laughing so voraciously at a masterpiece written well over 400 years ago. This shared delight and wonder.

This was arguably most apparent in Act 4, Scene 3, a classic satirical situation where things get well and truly out of hand for the king, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine, while taking full advantage of Joanna Scotcher’s sublime set design. It’s a simple stage, made up of a rotating staircase in front of the Navarre kingdom emblem, with palm trees in the middle, but that’s what makes it so effective. It feels exotic and peaceful, yet somehow also chaotic and unpredictable. The lead men hiding away as best they can while truths come to light is so expertly done, as is the ensemble playing music throughout but notably on the stairs as they slowly move around.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is exceptionally done. The cast absolutely shines (particularly amazing as, for the majority of its leads, this is their RSC debut season), the humour is infectious, the direction is gorgeous. Uncle Bill really knew what he was doing, eh?

But what of Love’s Labour’s Won, the story that The Shakespeare Code has at its heart? There’s debate whether this really is a lost work, or whether it’s an alternative title to another of the Bard’s comedies, and while the latter feels unlikely to this reviewer, I nonetheless hope it’s the case. The ending to Love’s Labour’s Lost is perfect. It’s a rug-pull moment that allows the audience to decide what happens “twelve months hence”, a reminder that life sometimes gets in the way. I should really thank those pesky Carrionites because…

Oh, I loved it.

Love’s Labour’s Lost plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 18th May 2024.

Philip Bates

Editor and co-founder of the Doctor Who Companion. When he’s not watching television, reading books ‘n’ Marvel comics, listening to The Killers, and obsessing over script ideas, Philip Bates pretends to be a freelance writer. He enjoys collecting everything. Writer of The Black Archive: The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang, The Silver Archive: The Stone Tape, and 100 Objects of Doctor Who.

Reviewed: Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Royal Shakespeare Company

by Philip Bates time to read: 4 min
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