Labor of Love

Coming into this season, I needed to see four of Shakespeare’s plays to complete the canon: Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Two Noble Kinsmen, King John, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Now, there are three. This production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a piece of Stratford history, directed as it is by Michael Langham, the Festival’s second Artistic Director (and second longest-serving, from 1956 to 1967), and the man who took Stratford from being an innovation to being an institution. Moreover, this show is something of an institution at the Festival, as it has been produced nearly as often as any other (9 times including this year; only As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Twelfth Night exceed it, with 10 appearances), and more than once before by Langham himself (including the first production, in 1961, and the 1983 production for what was then the “Young Company” of new actors at the Festival). The “Young Company” no longer exists, but now the Festival runs the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre to train actors in the peculiar rigors of Shakespeare performance, and this production is centered on eight actors – the four pairs of lovers – who are new graduates of the Conservatory (with several earlier grads sprinkled through the cast, and another earlier grad in the assistant director’s chair). So this production is a kind of commencement ceremony as much as a play.

Having never seen nor studied the play (I read it quickly in the days before seeing the show), I have very little context in which to comment on the production. So consider these views to be even less-well-informed than usual.

I found the play surprisingly hard to like. There was a kind of mathematical quality to the repeated exchange of puns and bawdy jokes. And nobody was every allowed to get very far into their characters. Everyone is a one-trick pony, from Don Armado the sad, solemn Spaniard to Boyet the frisky French fop to Costard the caddish clown to others without alliterative qualities. And the youngsters are just plain hard to like. The boys are ridiculous and the girls are mean. I kept feeling that the central cast of characters would be very productively re-cast in a contemporary high school sex farce. (Come to think of it, the set-up of American Pie is pretty much exactly the opposite of that of Love’s Labour’s Lost, and contains the same number of couples . . . hmmm . . .) As for this particular production, the set was surprisingly dull, and the costumes unsurprisingly rich, and there was too much of a sense, particularly in the early scenes, that these actors hade just learned their craft, and were showing off that they could speak verse in an unstilted manner, forgetting that they had to do that – and still act.

But the production grew on me as it wore on. The Nine Worthies pageant had me laughing as intended, and the sad coda, where the boys are dismissed to their newly re-conceived devotions and girls return to France to mourn, was affectingly done. And, in spite of the weaknesses among the lovers, the performances were generally good, particularly by two older actors, Peter Donaldson, who played Don Armado with touching simplicity, and John Vickery, who managed to play the pedantic Holofernes without hamming it up too much, and was all the funnier for it. Among the other veteran performers, Brian Tree was relatively subdued as Costard, as was Steven Sutcliffe as Boyet. And among the young lovers, the standouts were Alana Hawley as the Princess of France and Ian Lake as Berown; the others – unfortunately including the actress playing Rosaline – didn’t make a very distinct impression.

Unquestionably, though, the show-stealing performance of the evening was Abigail Winter-Culliford as Moth, Don Armado’s witty little page. This girl – she’s eleven – is a seriously talented actress, with perfect comic timing. I missed her last year as Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, but I have no doubt she’ll be back – she’s a comer.

Not the most interesting or powerful production of the season, but far from a waste of labor either.