In advance of these performances I was looking forward to them. I hadn't seen Love's Labour's Lost since Ian Judge's fantastic 1993 RSC production, and Much Ado is very close to my heart. Sadly it proved to be a thoroughly disappointing day featuring uninsightful direction, weak casting and poor verse speaking.
Christopher Luscombe has chosen to set the plays on either side of the First World War. Thus Love's Labour's Lost ends with the four men going off to the front, and Much Ado About Nothing begins with their return. In the case of Love's Labour's Lost this is especially unfortunate for someone like myself who saw Judge's production. In that case, the hint of what is to come was done with great subtlety – simply with a dimming of the lights and the distant sight and sound of the guns in Flanders. Luscombe forces the point, by bringing the quartet of men back on in their uniforms and loses the punch of the moment as a result. In Much Ado, with the exception of Don John and Dogberry there is really no sense of any of the other characters having been through the horrors of the conflict. Dogberry does appear as if he might be both mentally and physically injured but the way in which this is turned into a subject of mockery is frankly disturbing and, I finally felt, inappropriate. As an aside there is something similarly troubling about the way all the lower class characters are afforded regional accents.
More frustrating is how little Luscombe does having yoked these two plays conceptually together.
Textually there are plenty of links, and it seems surprising this pairing isn't more common. But in terms of direction Luscombe makes virtually nothing of the fact that Berowne/Benedict and Rosaline/Beatrice are doubled, and so on through the company. Nor does he find ways to allow treatment of themes in the first play to enrich similar themes in the second. And, in a wider sense, Luscombe shows little insight in his movement direction – there is an almost complete absence of subtlety or point in movement or gesture or physical contacts in these shows. Occasionally there are glimmerings of directorial ideas about text but these are too often problematically executed, like the direction of Dogberry. Another example would be the staging of the accusation scene in Much Ado. It is not a bad idea to turn it into a kind of sermon from Friar Francis when he is advising Leonato et al on a course of action. However, it is not helped by the over-echoey effect imposed on the voices and it is ridiculous to have at least seven members of the ensemble, most problematically including three members of Don Pedro's unit, sitting trapped in their pews listening to him. That those three in particular are going to keep the secret that Hero is not really dead from their commanding officer just does not convince. It would also have helped if any of the seven had managed to look as if they were in some way reacting to the dramatic events that are going on in front of them. Sadly, this is another general problem with these shows – that those not speaking in any given scene rarely give any sense that they are nevertheless listening and often should be affected by what is taking place.
Perhaps the strongest measure of the poverty of Luscombe's vision can be found in the gulling scenes in Much Ado. I've seen several hilarious stagings of these over the years – Zoe Wanamaker falling into the swimming pool at the National, Roger Allam hiding in a tree and swallowing a cigar in shock for the RSC, Tamsin Greig again, I think, for the RSC, trying to stop scooter alarms going off, and the beautifully choreographed film versions in the recent Whedon adaptation. Luscombe manages Benedict's (as with too much else in these shows) as if the play is in fact a pantomime. It's passable until he starts hiding in the Christmas tree. The tree is huge, it is simply unconvincing that a man of Edward Bennett's build could get himself inside the tree in order to stick his head through, or climb the tree so that his face could appear haloed by the star. Parts of the audience laughed, but those concealments work when it's believable to think people could be concealing themselves in that way – here it simply is not. I have seen versions where directors manage to make the second scene with Beatrice the funnier. Luscombe produces one of the feeblest versions I've ever seen. Lisa Dillon's (Beatrice) head sticks out of a window over a door for basically the entire scene, her face sadly failing to give much sense that anything shocking is being said about her beneath. If you can't render the audience helpless with mirth in these scenes then you've no business directing these plays.
Other aspects of the production are equally weak. The set is one of the most unconvincingly stagey I've seen for some time. It's framed by a stately home type turreted backdrop – the turrets being bizarrely underused. Trucks holding various rooms periodically role out – it's artificial and does little to convince of the reality of these worlds and their problems. Overly intrusive soundscapes continue to be a feature of London theatre at present, further not helped here by tinny miking of the band.
A strong cast might have salvaged something from all this. Unfortunately, these shows do not possess this either. The verse speaking is indifferent – rarely finding point or emotional depth. Not a single cast member ever truly commands the stage for an extended period of time. Individuals occasionally find moments, for example Tunji Kasim's Dumaine in the first play and towards the end of Much Ado, Steven Pacey's Leonato, but these are far too few and far between to sustain interest. In Love's Labour's Lost there is a sad failure to sharply differentiate the characters and relations of the eight lovers. In Much Ado there is an almost complete lack of chemistry between either of the two pairs of lovers – and a resultant lack of crucial emotional depth. Edward Bennett (Berowne/Benedict) comes closest to a satisfying performance but just doesn't demonstrate enough range in either part. In particular, as Benedict, he makes the character too much a fool. Over Lisa Dillon's Beatrice I prefer to draw a veil.
Altogether this is a thoroughly undeserved transfer. The Much Ado isn't quite as bad as the recent Old Vic debacle, towards the end there are places where it finds some emotional resonance, but it is too little too late. The Love's Labour's Lost did remind me what a lovely play it can be, but this tended only to make me wish I was back watching that fine Ian Judge production. To be avoided.