With its unexpected love-doesn't-necessarily-conquer-all ending, Love's Labour's Lost - in which a King's plans for male bonding and abstinence in studious isolation are sweetly disrupted by the arrival of a French princess and her bevy of beauties - is one of Shakespeare's more morose comedies and for this, his farewell National Theatre production, Trevor Nunn has wrested every darker nuance from the text.
Widely trailed as an Edwardian production, you might enter the NT Olivier auditorium expecting something akin to a Merchant Ivory film of languid, lotus-eating youths in country houses. Yet Nunn's Labour begins more like All Quiet on the Western Front as officer Berowne contemplates gentler times. In fact, in an unusual twist with this scene that comes full circle, Nunn uses the play's closing line - that "the words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo" - to both begin and end proceedings.
Do we really need reminding that the Great War was the aftermath of the Edwardian summer? And surely the martial (as opposed to marital) theme would have been more appropriate if Shakespeare had said "words of Mars"? Perhaps Nunn is obliquely referring to the fact that Mercury is the god of liars referring to the broken promises that litter Shakespeare's play - the onset of a war would lead to many enforced separations?
Best to get past it. Despite the clumsiness of the framing device, this is an excellent production, almost Chekhovian in its pacing. Nunn rightly draws attention to the fact that, while the king can self-indulgently clear his court of women, it's not such a happy choice for the maids thrown out of work and separated from their lovers.
There are further Chekhovian tones in Nunn's touches on class differences. When Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel go on the picnic, they drink wine from glasses, while the more proletarian Dull drinks from a mug. Meanwhile, the servants carrying the aristocrats' hampers rub their feet in exhaustion - it's clear that this is no picnic for them. There's a glimpse of pure nastiness, too, as the aristocrats bait the Judas Maccabeus masque with anti-semitic comments.
Nunn draws some excellent performances from his actors. Simon Day is a pompous prig of a king, Olivia Williams a buttoned-up princess (you suspect they'd make a perfect couple) and Joseph Fiennes is smoothly cynical as Berowne. Best of all, in smaller parts, are Philip Voss' Boyet, a maliciously camp gossip, and Robin Soans' insufferable pedant of a Holofernes, everyone's nightmare Latin teacher.
There are some low points. The king, Dumaine and Longaville hymn their loves with some rather cheesy songs that seem out of place and, even though the actors were miked, I still had difficulty hearing all the words.
While this Love's Labour's Lost might not be one of Nunn's truly great productions, there's enough to remind us what he's done at the National and why his Shakespearean productions are always worth seeing.