The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Love Is Lost

Another review from 2006; the BBC Shakespeare production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Having since seen the Kenneth Branagh film version, I can happily confirm that that is even worse.

Love's Labour's Lost

One of the few points of interest about this inconsequential, half-baked and thoroughly second-rate play is its downbeat ending. The various boys and girls have got it together - and then news comes in that the Princess's dad has just died. The festivities halt, and the play takes on an abruptly melancholic, disheartened, back -to-Earth-with-a-bump feel. Or, as Armado describes it:

"The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo"

The play then just stops. The girls go home, and the boys resolve to spend the next year in penance for a spot of oath-breaking. The promise is made that they will all meet again in a year's time, after a suitable period of mourning, when festivities will resume.

Unfortunately we don't have that story. Love's Labour's Won has been lost. But Love's Labour's Lost is clearly only half a story, lacking resolution or unity. It is only half a play, the run up the hill in anticipation of a long run down again. There was certainly more to come.

Another possible point of interest is how egregiously poor the play is. Its storyline is both cluttered and simplistic. Four boys - King Ferdinand of Navarre, plus his mates Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine - all decide that they are Not Getting Enough Work Done, and so all take an oath to forswear romantic attachments for the next three years. No ladies are to be allowed within a mile of their court at Navarre.

Unfortunately Ferdinand has forgotten he’s expecting a visit from the King of France's daughter, and her three female friends Rosaline, Maria and Katherine. She's due to see Ferdinand about some money owed to him by the King of France.

Ferdinand refuses the Princess entry to Navarre, but lets her camp in the field outside the city walls. He goes to see her there, and of course he falls in love with her, Berowne falls in love with Rosaline, Longaville falls in love with Maria and Dumaine falls in love with Katherine. So far, so repetitive.

All the boys write love letters. Berowne gives his letter for Rosaline to a servant, Costard, to deliver. Costard has also been asking to deliver a letter from Don Adriano de Armado (an idiot servant with delusions of learning) to the busty wench of his desiring, Jaquenetta.

Costard, of course, gets the letters mixed up. A microcosm of hilarity ensues.

The boys all discover that they have all broken their oaths, and decide not to bother with the no-romantic-attachments rule from now on. They decide to get woo-ing, and send the four girls accessories to wear, along with their best attempts at poetry.

Then they hit upon a plan. They will visit their girls whilst disguised as Russians wearing masks - the girls will not suspect a thing - and chat them up without technically breaking any oaths.

The girls hear about this plan and decide to also don disguises, and switch accessories, so the boys end up chatting up the wrong girls! The boys put on funny Russian accents and the girls all tell them ta but not ta. Another microcosm of hilarity ensues.

Then the boys sod off, remove their Cossack cossies, and return, where the girls explain about their plan to take the piss out of the boys trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

And that's it.

The problems with the play are firstly, four boys and four girls is far too many. They are so interchangeable you barely notice when they are interchanged.

Secondly, the humour. It's all quite hard-going rhetoric and poetic irony, as one person makes a simile and the other one picks it to pieces. As Neil once said, most metaphors don't bear close examination. There is some amusement to be found, but it is hard work to pick the humorous bones from the trout of rapid-fire exchange of 16th century circumlocution.

Thirdly, the subplots. They have virtually nothing to do with the main plot. There's the subplot about Don Adriano de Armado, Jaquenetta and Costard. Armado and Costard are both quite funny - two fools, one who knows how stupid he is, one who thinks he is clever. But their plotline just dribbles on.

The other subplot concerns the 'Worthies', a bunch of high-minded, pompous pseudo-intellectuals of Navarre. The story just grinds to a halt whenever they come on. Now, some of their scenes are quite fun - I love the character of Holofernes, who is just desperate to show off how clever he is all the time. He is John Sessions. He constantly lapses into latin, or makes classical allusions, and indulges in frequent verbosity, sesquipedalian, magniloquence, and pompous hyperbole. And there is one lovely bit where, in true Sessions style, he improvises a poem about a deer. A bloody awful poem, full of incredibly tortuous and unfunny puns based around the letter 'L' being 50 in roman numerals. And all his mates applaud his smug cleverness.

The third point of interest about this play, though, is that the Worthies are basically the Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, just not done as well. Holofernes is a proto-Quince. Armado (who joins the Worthies at the end, without explanation) is a proto-Bottom. And half-way through the play the Worthies are asked to put on a theatrical performance, which then appears in the final act as a 'funny bit' for all the lovers to sit and watch. With the same arguments about interpretation and prologues as in AMND.

And when they perform the play, it is pretty much the same. The Worthies have decided to stage a series of monologues of figures from classical literature. The audience heckles, and the performers lose their places. The guy playing Pompey the Great announces himself as Pompey the Big. The guy playing Alexander the Great gets stage fright and runs offstage in terror.

Basically, it is exactly the same ideas as in A Midsummer Night's Dream - just not done as well. But it would seem to imply that this play pre-dates AMND, as Shakey saw the flaws in his earlier work and addressed them. So where the Worthies feel like a gratuitous addition to LLL, the Mechanicals are integrated into the plot of AMND. And the play in AMND reflects the themes of the play, whereas the performance in LLL has nothing to do with the themes of LLL.

But there is amusement to be had, if you dig deep. The Worthies' pretentiousness is quick hard work, though, as having deliberately arcane language filtered through the already occasionally quite arcane language of Shakespeare can lead to whole scenes going by without anyone knowing what the f*ck is supposed to be going on (indeed, there is some evidence that the person who put together the first folio couldn’t follow it and thus included two versions of the same speech).

There is also some fun in recitations of bad poetry - the stuff the boys knock out isn't too bad, if a little blokey, whilst Armado's poem to Jaquenetta is deliberately painfully inept in its barrage of rhetorical questions and obscure classical allusions, and Holofernes' improvised poem is a delight in its sheer, clever-clever John Sessions unfunnyness. If I was an English teacher then I would set an essay on compare-and-contrast the use of bad poetry in LLL to illustrate character.

On the other hand, there are endless boring monologues with the boys questioning breaking their oaths and a load of waffle about 'love', particularly in the first two acts.

There are also too many classical allusions. One or two is clever. Use them all the time and it just looks like Shakey's in danger of becoming as pretentious as the characters he’s lampooning.

All in all, though, I haven't many kind words to say about this play. It's quite short, but it really, really doesn't work, it is unsatisfactory in every respect, and feels rushed, perfunctory and unfinished. The story is boring, illogical, wafer-thin, and just doesn't work.

Not many good people in this one, either. David Warner makes the best of being miscast as Armado, and that's it.

I have a feeling it may be Shakey's least pukka comedy. I hope so. I'm not sure I can cope with one worse than this.

Next: The Life and Death of King John


  1. The Globe production on dvd's pretty good, but the stuff that isn't about the royalty still drags horribly with the all too visible audience looking visibly restless. They play up the parallels at the end of the play between the Princess receiving the letter about her father and Elizabeth I being called to duty. It's actually a revival of the production which was Gemma Arterton's stage debut though she's not in it. I like the Branagh too, but it says a lot about the play that he cuts 80% of the dialogue in an attempt to make it work. I don't think I've seen or heard one which works particularly well no matter what acting talent is thrown at it. As you say, it's clearly half a story.

    1. Yes, I went to see it at the Globe and thought they did a very good job of it - I recall they added their own farcical ending to the show-within-a-show and cut some of the Worthies stuff (or maybe I just zoned out during those bits). Will have to get the DVD to check, all the Globe DVDs are excellent.