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Love's Labours Lost
Olivier Theatre 2003

Trevor Nunn's farewell production as director of the National Theatre is not quite the best LLL I've ever seen, but it is close enough that you can readily forgive its minor slips and excesses, and give yourself over to its pleasures.

Shakespeare's early play is deceptively difficult for actors and directors. It should be a simple romantic comedy - the guys swear off women and then the girls show up - but most modern readers find an elegiac air of lost innocence in it - it ends with the announcement of an offstage death abruptly bringing everyone down to earth - and directorial attempts to capture that hint of sadness all too often produce dreary ponderousness instead.

This is, in fact, where Nunn trips up most badly, though he soon recovers. Setting the play in the innocent world of the years preceding the 1914-1918 war is a reasonable way to suggest lost innocence, and it's been done before. But Nunn frames Shakespeare's play with new scenes set in the trenches, making the whole a flashback memory of the apparently dying Berowne. Nunn's heart is in the right place, but in practice the device is heavy-handed, distracting and superfluous.

Once we get into the play itself, though, we're on much surer ground, as Nunn leads his cast to inventive and attractive characterisations. The King and his colleagues are quickly established as idealistic and more than a bit foolish, swearing an oath with no sense of its complications, while the visiting Princess and her court are, from the start, more level-headed and sensible than their swains, thus reassuring us that things can never get too bad..

The scene in which the four men, having sworn their oath and then fallen in love, catch each other writing love poetry is especially delightful, with composer Steven Edis converting each of the wretched sonnets into more-than-passable popular song modes of the period, for the men to sing. The one in which they visit the girls in disguise doesn't work, but then it never does, and so we just wait it out. The subplot involving a local schoolmaster, a visiting Spaniard and other rustic characters is presented with warmth and good humour.

As Berowne, the cleverest of the four men who commit themselves to a period of monastic study, Joseph Fiennes seamlessly goes from being witty to looking foolish and back again, Shakespeare's demonstration that no one is immune from the follies of love. Simon Day is attractive as the earnest and not very bright King, clearly meant for Olivia Williams' nearsighted Princess.

Robin Soans finds all the laughs in the pedantic but good-hearted schoolmaster, Philip Voss lets us glimpse a dirty old man behind the urbanity of the ladies' gentleman-in-waiting, Richard Henders is a manly and good-natured  farm worker, and the only criticism to be made of Martin Marquez' flamboyant Spaniard is that he occasionally swallows his words, spoiling the joke of the man's mangling of English.

If I've seen some of this done even better, then I've been remarkably lucky. That clumsy frame sequence aside, this is certainly as good a LLL as you have any right to ask for.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Love's Labours Lost - National 2003