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Love’s Labour’s Lost

By William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Company & Chichester Festival Theatre

Opera House, Manchester

29 November 2016

Love’s Labour’s Lost

This, the first of the comedies (see Much Ado About Nothing), is set in 1914, a ludic and light hearted Arcadian Age.

Berowne (Edward Bennett) woos Rosaline (Lisa Dillon) with insouciance and mock ardour: as though he has all the time in the world. Don Armado (John Hodgkinson) is a grand figure – an Italian Falstaff, he by right belongs in an opera – and it is interesting to observe the response of the Academy’s dry Latin scholars (who’re pedantic, precise and just a sprinkle prissy) to an actual, rude as life, gross Italian. They cannot escape from Don Armado’s attentions; there are no safe spaces on stage.

The end of this play always has an elegiac feel (the marriages have likely been scuppered not deferred) but with the intrusion of war this is more pronounced still. ‘We’ll meet again’? No, these lovers have been cast asunder forever. Rosaline’s expressed desire to ‘choke a gibing spirit’ (she is taking aim at Berowne’s care-free wit) seems eerily prescient in this regard, a shadow before darkness (think of the gas attack at Ypres on 22 April 1915) descends.

If this all sounds very gloomy, I apologise! It is actually a very enjoyable play and there are deft comic touches throughout. There is the display of ‘vocal magnificence’ and exuberance (poesy and rhetoric are its subject as much as courtship) that made it Harold Bloom’s favourite play. In a sense, there are two plays here: an Edwardian comedy, as you experience it in real time, and a tragedy in retrospect.

As an aside, I have always found the backstory romance between Berowne and Rosaline intriguing (‘Did I not dance with you at Brabant once?’ and all that) and wish someone (ideally, Tom Stoppard) could be encouraged to build a play, a prequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost, around it.

Much Ado about Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost are at the Opera House in Manchester until 3 December, then they play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London until March 2017. Details here.