What temporary, language-related issues was Shakespeare working through when he wrote Love’s Labours Lost? Is this some final attempt to erase the stigma of a mere player daring to match wits with the university men? The taffeta phrases of the King of Navarre and his lovesick companions, the hyperverbal sallies of Don Adriano de Armado and the pedantic garrulity of Holofernes the schoolmaster generate a dense cloud of language that is often impenetrable. Shakespearean comedy is fragile enough already, often depending on a degree of cultural empathy that no audience can be expected to have at hand, but in LLL, the comedy seems hopelessly anchored in its period. It’s a play I want to enjoy, but that alienating language fog and the equally obnoxious attempts of most productions to compensate for it leave me discouraged.
Some versions fill in the gaps by dropping the play in a different time period, for example Branagh’s film. But that doesn’t solve the problem, it merely stuffs in bits and pieces of a different play. LLL is not set in Europe in the late 30s or in 1915 (a stage production I once saw) and I feel as if something essential has been destroyed by adding the more familiar surroundings. As with The Phoenix and the Turtle, I am much more content to grant Shakespeare’s world its integrity, however odd and opaque it might sometimes seem.
And Argo is the right place to find that treatment. The Argo recording of LLL has possibly the best cast of the series, certainly the best I’ve reviewed so far in this blog. Throughout, I find subtleties in characterization and line delivery that surprise me. Derek Godfrey’s King wants to be taken seriously, but has from the outside a distracted, dizzy air that thwarts his best efforts – a gently funny performance. Gary Watson as Berowne gives that usually intolerable smart-ass an unexpected sweetness and depth. Tony Church’s Holofernes is ultimately too sincere and vulnerable to offend, and he scores a fine little moment when he seems genuinely hurt by the snide remarks of the audience at his Pageant of the Nine Worthies. Robert Eddison’s Boyet is pitch-perfect – a polished, witty, deferential old courtier. Max Adrian’s Armado may lack the true braggart’s overstated conviction in his own prowess (he’s not even pretending to be a warrior or even Spanish for that matter), but he has no trouble being fantastical. Michael Bates recreates his 1954 Old Vic Costard and adds wily rustic to his gallery of Shakespearean clowns, neatly complemented by the drily taciturn Constable Dull of Peter Woodthorpe.
Best of all are the four visiting ladies from France. The Princess of France, in Janette Richer’s hands is an amusing mixture of authority and girlishness – her irritation when she realizes that Costard has cornered her into admitting that she’s the “thickest” of the ladies is delightful. Prunella Scales finds in Rosaline more than a mere early sketch of Beatrice in Much Ado – her agenda is deeper than mere banter, and while she is witty throughout, she keeps a serious side as well – she lays the groundwork perfectly for her final, serious speech to Berowne. The other two ladies are Diana Rigg and Susan Maryott, the former at the very beginning of her long and distinguished career; the latter, nearly at the end (sister of director John Schlesinger and a very promising actress, she would die tragically at the age of 30 before the last Argo recording was released).
In all, the performers more than compensate for the play’s difficulties. The story of four young noblemen and their vow of scholarly seclusion, foiled by the visit of four irresistably charming ambassadors from the court of France is allowed to unroll in all its perplexity and peculiar beauty, without compromise or distraction. Director Rylands’ approach to the plays is amply vindicated here, the poetry fully supported by performers he has clearly drilled to perfection.
Love’s Labours Lost with Derek Godfrey, Gary Watson, Janette Richer, Prunella Scales, Max Adrian, Michael Bates, Peter Woodthorpe, Robert Eddison and Tony Church.