For Peter Hall's first home-grown production at the Rose, he has returned to the first Shakespeare play that he directed. It would be hard to believe that the version he produced more than 50 years ago was as slow moving and as solemn as this one.
This is an elegantly staged piece, and as with most Hall productions, beautifully spoken, but it’s also infused with an air of solemnity that masks the comedy.
This story of young men shunning the pleasures of life for three years hard studying until distracted by young women from the French court is rich in comic possibility. Throw in a few digs at pedantry and verbosity, some anti-Spanish jibes and enough penis jokes to keep Russell Brand amused for hours and you have the recipe for a scintillating comedy, yet it’s strangely flat.
Finbar Lynch's Berowne is older than one normally sees. He has a world-weary cynicism more akin to Benedict than the young gallant - one can scarcely recognise the merry “maker of mirth” of Rosaline's description. But then Susie Trayling’s Rosaline is herself a Beatrice in the making.
But she is rather typical of the French court, which, led by Rachel Pickup’s princess, is a rather sombre entourage - the words of Mercury rather than the songs of Apollo are definitely hanging over this production. The text makes it clear that they are rather relishing the possibility of a bit of romance at the diplomatic mission but their demeanour rather suggests a speed-dating session at the local actuarial society.
Much better are the locals: a particularly good Holofernes from William Chubb, relishing his verbal jousting and his incessant Latin quotations – one instantly feels sorry for the schoolboys suffering at his hands. Peter Bowles is an almost solemn Don Armado, eschewing the comic Spanish accent - which does however make it seem strange when Holofernes refers to it later.
Christopher Woods’ rather bare set adds to the austere feel of the production and is in keeping with the emphasis on the text. In some ways, this is appropriate as it’s a play about language and all the emphasis has gone on the text. Hall has drawn out the nuances of every word, but somehow along the way, the sparkle of the play has gone.
- Maxwell Cooter