Russ Hunt's Reviews

Love's Labour's Lost
by William Shakespeare

Theatre UNB / English 2170
Memorial Hall, March 21-24, 2005

There is a theory that Shakespeare was targeting pretentious, unrealistic academics when he created the complicated dance of Love's Labour's Lost -- one (unlikely) story has it that he was getting back at academics who had condescended to a production of his Comedy of Errors at the Inns of Court.

However that may be, there's plenty of evidence in the play that the young comer Shakespeare was demonstrating his ability to wield the power of English with the best of them -- in some ways, in fact, the play is all about language. There are the amazing number of letters read aloud; there is the satire on the exaggerated linguistic pretensions of the schoolmaster Holofernes and the fantastical Spaniard Armado. There are the regular wit-based courtship language duels between the four pairs of lovers -- especially, of course, the recurring brilliance of the badinage between Biron, the more cynical and realistic of the young scholars, and his Rosaline.

The richness and cleverness (some might say excessive cleverness) of the language of this play -- it's even titled "A conceited comedy," to warn us that we'd better  be watching out for conceits, puns, strained figures and linguistic games -- poses challenges for any company taking it on.  Early on, we're told about one character, for example, that he's

A man in all the world's new fashion planted,
That hath a mint of phrases in his brain;
One whom the music of his own vain tongue
Doth ravish like enchanting harmony.
This focus on language may be one reason it's one of the more seldom produced of his comedies. That it's actually about scholars and academia, though, makes it pretty tempting for university companies and courses, and I was happy to learn that Len Falkenstein was taking it on as his last production before a well-earned sabbatical leave next year.

I was not surprised to find that Falkenstein and designer Mike Johnson had found yet another way to take the resistant space of Memorial Hall and reshape it in such a way that we're all forced to think again about the relations between audience and action, and what the shape of a theatre can do to shape those relations.  Built in front of the permanent stage was a slightly lower thrust stage, with a four-poster bower, hung with flowers, hovering over it.  Off in the back corner of the house across a floor-level playing space and raised and canted, is a tree- and flower-bedecked space which become home base for the princess of France and her entourage. Around all this on both sides, and extending up on the stage proper, are rows of chairs for the audience, making the performance a kind of hybrid theatre in the round, engaging the audience in the Kingdom of Navarre in part because many of them have to walk through parts of the kingdom to find seats.

The plot -- one of the few Shakespeare seems to have made up on his own -- is geometrically elaborate, improbably direct, and oddly unconcluded.  It centers on the resolution of the King of Navarre (named Ferdinand, unlike any actual king of that province, but recalling the Protestant Henry of Navarre, who became one of the most popular Kings of France) to spend three years in the purity of scholarship and study -- no women, short rations, little sleep.  Three of his companions have signed, we learn, oaths to fast and study with him.  Instantly, we (and he) find that a Princess of France already has an appointment to visit his court, so almost as soon as they're signed the oaths become impossible (as the wittily reluctant Biron points out with some glee). The Princess arrives with three attendants, which makes the oncoming square dance utterly inevitable -- except for the odd fact that just as it looks as though everything's going to work out, with four marriages to end the play, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of a messenger who announces that the King of France has suddenly expired, and the women are to go home. End, astonishingly, of play.

Among the eight main characters in the courtship dance, Shakespeare's focus is on Biron, the spokesman for a more cynical and realistic view of the King's proposal, and in many ways the protagonist.  Chris Nyarady plays him with just a whiff of Eric Idle, and a fine, athletic energy (and an ability to get his mouth around Shakespeare's dialogue).  On the distaff side, Biron's sparring partner is Rosaline, played solidly and clearly by Bridget Spence -- but the star of the Princess's retinue is her attendant, "honey-tongued Boyet," played with amazing presence by Michael Holmes-Lauder. His quizzical, sardonic skepticism, the active, engaged, and puzzled way he attends to what's going on around him, and his unerring focus made me think of some of the good performances I've seen of Puck or Ariel -- not-so-innocent bystanders, commenting on and fomenting the actions of others.

Breaking up the action of the misunderstandings, deceptions and confusion of the four pairs of lovers are two sets of more broadly comic characters: the pretentious Spanish linguistic fop, Don Adriano de Armado, whose letters are read aloud to great laughter at a number of points. (How many plays can you think of in which there is this much reading aloud of parodic letters?) Armado is played with a large, square swagger by Matt Ralph, resplendent in an exaggerated blue suit of lights. Symmetrically opposite Armado and his page is the affected schoolmaster, Holofernes, whose language is as academically exaggerated as Armado's is pompous.  Played with a swooping Ichabod Crane presence by John Ball, Holofernes and his curate, Nathaniel, represent a commitment to a laboured linguistic wittiness that renders language itself pretty much incomprehensible:

The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood; ripe
as the pomewater, who now hangeth like a jewel in
the ear of caelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven;
and anon falleth like a crab on the face of terra,
the soil, the land, the earth.
All this linguistic satire runs the risk, of course, of being entirely lost on a twenty-first century theatre audience, and needs to be fleshed out with physical comedy that helps us see what's going on even as we miss half the jokes. Some, of course, we don't miss: Jeff Miller's Costard makes it perfectly clear what he thinks of the characterization of Armado's proudly-titled "remuneration: "O, that's the Latin word for three farthings: three farthings -- remuneration. -- 'What's the price of this inkle?' -- 'One penny.' -- 'No, I'll give you a remuneration'." More commonly, though, we're amused by broader comedy: Biron, for instance, up in a "tree," observing his compadres admitting one by one that they've broken their oaths and fallen in love, and then each hiding and listening to the next confession.

As usual, though, what matters in this production is the ensemble playing, and, as usual, Falkenstein manages to avoid the usual pitfall of undergraduate productions of Shakespeare -- people standing around with nothing much to do.  Love's Labour's Lost is, even more than most of Shakespeare's plays, structured around people observing each other, and the level of focus attained by the entire company, as they listen to each other or mime separate conversations while we attend to someone else, is admirable.

Besides all this, the show's physical appearance -- set decoration, costumes, blocking -- all supported a real engagement in a play which could seem pretty mechanical.  The vaguely late-19th century costumes -- from Boyet's perfect top hat to the French court ladies gowns (and hats); the flower-decorated bower most of the action occurs in; the subtle and accurate lighting, and the efficient use of the whole complicated acting space, all added up to a Love's Labour's Lost that brought us to the edge of seeing how the strange ending might actually be appropriate, with its suddenly abrogated courtships and the weirdly introduced spring and winter, cuckoo and owl songs -- the ones everybody knows, but which seem to have only the most tenuous connection with the rest of the play. The cuckoo sings of spring and cuckolding, and the staring owl sings of winter while greasy Joan doth keel the pot, and all of it seems to make a strange kind of sense.

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