On Radio 4's Go For It at the weekend, a group of young listeners proffered their views on the children's Midsummer Night's Dream film set for release. No problems with the characters (each listed a favourite) or the plot were forthcoming. But the language, they thought, was just too, well... "Shakespearean".
The full age spectrum was in evidence at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, for an accessible production of Love's Labour's Lost that resolves why Shakespeare remains one of history's most enlightening writers. No problems with the characters or plot here either - for in the bosom of a truly fine cast, Shakespeare's work is rewardingly visible. This play is a difficult read, as the children could probably vouch for, but a remarkably straightforward drama in the right hands.
The bookish, Autumnal colours of Kit Surrey's stage design fit the story's melancholy, literary intentions suitably. A number of aesthetic stepladders clamber skywards, like some IKEA notion of suburban totem poles. And with no further adornments, we're introduced to the King of Navarre (a youthful Benedict Cumberbatch) and his three attendant lords, weighing the merits of a sequestered year's study away from temptation. "The mind shall banquet though the body pine", they sigh in contemplation. Even the reluctant Berowne, an energised Adrian Schiller, gives in although Schiller’s early glinting prose was torn to shreds by the blades of a low-flying helicopter.
However, the rakish Costard (Paul Kemp in sprightly form) and slow-witted Constable Dull soon set things stirring. The former is accused of consorting with a "child of our Grandmother Eve", or "a wench!" as Costard proudly proclaims. Packed off to jail, he makes way for superb Christopher Godwin - all foppish fireworks and trembling affectation - as soldier dandy Don Adriano de Armado. Equally enamoured of Costard's wench (Alison Crowther as a lusty Jaquenetta) Don Adriano's lovelorn wrestlings pave the way for what follows.
Sure enough, enticement is thrown into the paths of Navarre ands chums in the form of the French Princess. Happily she also has a trio of female attendants and the secret courting commences. Berowne and Rosaline (Rebecca Johnson bubbling mightily) engage in sparring that recalls Much Ado's reluctant Beatrice and Benedict, although it's far less developed here.
The stepladders continue to totter on high as if to signal romantic steps to heaven, or the reaching for the knowledge tree. They also function as useful props as the tangle of letters and trysts unravels. Charades, masks and bizarre Russian disguises (Shakes never did elaborate on that one) are employed as we close in on the bard's ambivalent ending.
Strange that such a potentially approachable piece, given respectful restraint by director Rachel Kavanaugh, should have been so disfavoured in Shakespeare's day. This company in particular would have rendered it an attentive evening's musing in any age. A labour of love that's a far cry from labouring in vain.
- by Gareth Thompson