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Review Round-up: Has Tennant Lost Midas Touch?

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Love\'s Labour\'s Lost, the second production from the David Tennant-led Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble behind Hamlet, opened last night at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (8 October 2008, previews from 2 October), where it runs in rep until 15 November 2008.

One of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, Love\'s Labour\'s Lost tells of what happens when the King of Navarre persuades three friends to join him in a vow of celibacy so that they can concentrate on their studies, only to be instantly tested by the arrival of the beautiful princess of France and her three gorgeous ladies in waiting on an informal visit. This production marks the RSC’s first staging of the play in over 12 years.

Tennant, who plays the sharp-witted Berowne, is joined by Mariah Gale as the Princess of France, Nina Sosanya as Rosaline, Edward Bennett as the Duke of Navarre and Oliver Ford Davies as Holofernes. Other ensemble members include Sam Alexander, Joe Dixon, Tom Davey, Katherine Drysdale and Riann Steele. The production is directed by RSC chief associate Gregory Doran (who also helmed Hamlet) and designed by Francis O\'Connor.

“Lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place” seemed an apt choice of phrase for the production’s critical reception. But despite not receiving the unanimous raves that greeted Hamlet, there was certainly no shortage of praise, particularly for the performances. Tennant stole the limelight with a take on Berowne that “has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand”, while critics found him ably supported by the “hilarious ridiculousness” of Joe Dixon as Don Armado and Oliver Ford Davies’ “earnest pedant” Holofernes. Others were less keen on the production as a whole, which one critic described as a “broad brush-strokes” interpretation of one of the Bard’s most challenging works.

  • Fiona Handscomb on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “At the end of the day, no one really does Shakespeare better than, well, the Royal Shakespeare Company. Gregory Doran’s latest offering has all the hallmarks of adept, erudite direction and a slick, proficient cast … Although each character is admirably distinct - it’s not a play for high drama or tortured soliloquies - no members of the cast really get the chance to individually steal the limelight; although David Tennant’s quick, quirky Berowne has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand and Joe Dixon is allowed to revel in the hilarious ridiculousness of Don Adriano De Armado. The only criticism I would levy against this production is that it is perhaps a bit too full. There’s a heck of a lot packed into a fairly simple comedy, and it could do with a little slimming down in both overall feel and actual timing.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place. Having enjoyed a deserved triumph with Hamlet, Gregory Doran and many of the same David Tennant-led RSC team turn their attention to this enchanting early comedy. But, while it\'s a perfectly decent show, it has the rather ostentatious charm of a sweetly dimpled child determined to show us how pretty it is … Tennant, more than any other actor in this production, shows a capacity to handle Shakespeare\'s language with sensitivity … I wish I admired the rest of Doran\'s production as much. But, considering that Shakespeare\'s play rejoices in the very verbal virtuosity it is satirising, the production often seems indifferent to language. It gussies up the play with a plethora of effects including interpolated rap songs, a dancing bear and even, at the climax, a puppet owl on a bendy pole. As the comic Spaniard, Don Armado, Joe Dixon is also encouraged to turn the character\'s verbal infelicities into a string of double entendres.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “Tennant uses his native Scots accent, and there\'s a natural healthy scepticism in its lilt that suits the role … The production is a banquet of choice comic acting. Ricky Champ brings a touch of Norman Wisdom to that least wise of clowns, Costard, while Joe Dixon is hilarious as the English-mangling Spanish braggart Don Armado … Music is also beautifully used. In the scene where each lord, deludedly believing himself to be unobserved, confesses his love to the audience, the foursome end up harmonising in song. And the production segues with terrific poise from the farce of the Nine Worthies pageant to the shock of death that lays its chill on the fifth act. It\'s wonderful to think that, by virtue of his role in the Tardis, Tennant is able to square the circle for the RSC. Without diluting the expertise and the sense of seasoned experience a jot, he is awakening newcomers to the wonders of Shakespeare at his most exuberant.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Having been drenched in critics’ superlatives for his Stratford Hamlet and having caused several stampedes of teenagers at the box office, David Tennant now takes on a riskier proposition by trying his hand at one of Shakespeare’s least rewarding comedies. What an anti-climax it proves! That a subdued Tennant makes a merely charming impression on Love\'s Labour\'s Lost is to be blamed on an uninspired production of broad brush-strokes by Gregory Doran, and the actor’s apparent reluctance to engage or identify strongly with his character … The best productions infuse the play with a sense of love sought, fought for and passionately achieved in the high summer of youth before the shadows gather. It is not so here. Doran’s production makes Love\'s Labour\'s Lost into a hustle and bustle of stand-up comedians putting on a show.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “We already have one answer to the David Tennant conundrum. Yes, a time lord with eyes like big, bulging marbles can not only cope with Hamlet the perplexing play, but convince you that he’s emerged from the Tardis as Hamlet the noble Danish prince. However, the role he takes in Love\'s Labour\'s Lost presents a totally different challenge. At least until an ending that warns of deeper, darker work to come, the comedy shimmers, sparkles, frolics like a spring lamb — and demands that Tennant’s Berowne radiates unstoppable wit and humour. Tennant comes close to doing that, too … There are nice supporting performances. Joe Dixon is Don Armado … And Oliver Ford Davies, playing the schoolmaster Holofernes, is every inch the earnest pedant … Courtly love and/or good-natured lust are everywhere in a revival that, thanks to Katrina Lindsay’s gold-and-white Elizabethan costumes, always looks gorgeous.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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