Once again the lovely outdoor theatre in Regent's Park delights by giving us, not just a pleasant evening out, but one of the best Shakespearean productions ever.
This romantic comedy is about a young king and three courtiers who swear to a life of monastic study, only to have a beautiful princess and her ladies come visiting. Of course the men all fall in love instantly, and then have to rationalize a way out of their oaths. Meanwhile, in a subplot, a motley group of local eccentrics have their own adventure.
The problem with the play, which has caused most productions I've seen to run aground (it completely defeated Kenneth Branagh in the recent film), is that it is chock-full of thick, elaborate poetry and word play, and actors slogging their way through it get bogged down in lifeless recitation.
Some literary critics have guessed that the whole thing is a put-on, an in-joke parody of some of Shakespeare's contemporary poets, while others suggest it is an early play, before he learned how to control his unmatched poetic imagination.
But what director Rachel Kavanaugh realizes, almost uniquely, is that the over-the-top poetry is the whole joke. This is a play about people drunk with language.
The king and his pals, overwhelmed with first love, take sensual delight in talking about it, while the princess and her ladies, in their sophisticated French way, take pride in epigrammatic wit. The visiting Spaniard Don Adriano is over-eager to be courtly and proper in an English he hasn't quite mastered; the schoolmaster turns every conversation into a lesson in Latinate etymology; and so forth.
Everybody is high on language, and everybody is just a bit silly as a result. The thick poetry is there to be sent up, to be delighted in for its excesses, satirized but with a happy affection for its intoxicated speakers.
And this production captures exactly the right tone of loving mockery that enables us to laugh at the silliness while becoming a little intoxicated by the linguistic razzle-dazzle ourselves. From Benedict Cumberbatch's boyish king to Adrian Schiller's half-self-mocking Berowne, the wittiest of the lovers, the men are loveable fools all, just as Candida Benson's princess and Rebecca Johnson's Rosaline suggest girls just wanting to have fun. Christopher Godwin's Spaniard is a not-unintelligent man who is just a wee bit eccentric, much like Paul Kemp's Touchstone-like Costard and Tim Knightley's schoolmaster.
Unusually, this comedy ends on a serious note, and the production catches that tone exactly right, sending us out into the night with the blessing of an elegiac final scene.
In the past I have often recommended Open Air productions more for the special enjoyment of Shakespeare-in-the-Park than for their own merits. But this time I can say that this is likely to be the best Love's Labours Lost you are ever likely to see.
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Review - Love's Labours Lost - Open Air 2001