Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Love's Labour's Lost

I considered titling this post "Stratford-Upon-Avon," but since we didn't actually see Stratford I thought that would be a little misleading. No worries, though! We're going for a day sometime next week to get a feeling for the town, pay our respects to dear old Bill, and gain admittance into that special club of literary fanatics who legitimately care about those sorts of things. Oh! We attended this performance at The Courtyard Theatre. It's not the nicest venue in the world, that's for sure, but I'm led to understand that they are renovating some of the other theatres in the area. Then again, it was only opened in 2006, so I guess it's pretty decent as far as modern staging and seating arrangements go. Any way you dice it, we had a good time.

So, first things first: the plot. Love's Labour's Lost is one of Shakespeare's early comedies, and (as far as my experiences in the world of academia indicate) one of his lesser-known (but not apocryphal) plays. It tells the story of King Navarre and his court of men. Navarre convinces his three friends to abandon worldly pleasures and devote themselves wholly to study for three years. They have given their word, and the first two sign Navarre's contract without complaint. When it comes to Biron, a word-twisting epitome of sarcasm and wit, he pauses. Surely the King has made a mistake? No women? Fasting? Little sleep? After a splendidly witty debate, they all sign themselves into scholastic servitude.

Besides, they've got Don Adriano de Armado to look forward to. Three years spent studying how to best mock him seems short! And Armado is, indeed, an idiotic peacock. Don Armada loves a peasant girl, and is accompanied by a witty page boy. He, two scholars, and a clownish commoner called Costard (I didn't alliterate on purpose, but I'm leaving it there all the same) make up this play's equivalent of Bottom and the Tradesmen in Midsummer Night's Dream. They give a nice, plucky sub-plot, provide some intense word-play, and perform a severely mocked masquerade for the nobility at the end.

It turns out our boys have their work cut out for them. They forgot that the a French princess and her ladies would be visiting, and they cannot turn her party away. They send the women to sleep in the field, all four of them secretly in love with one of the ladies. As they go about how best to address their ladies fair, Shakespeare gets in a good bit of his usual punning, social satire, and wit. This play easily has the most elevated, whimsical use of language (as far as puns and double-entendres are concerned) of any Shakespeare play I've encountered. While Biron plans to woo his lady, he spies the King composing a letter to express his feelings. Ferdinand then hears someone coming and hides himself, so he and Biron spy on Longaville, and the process repeats itself as those three spy on Dumain. They then proceed to expose themselves one at a time, punishing the prior for his hypocrisy while never admitting their own faults. The process gets all the way back to Biron, and for a moment it looks as though he'll get to chide the other nobles without being exposed as a lover himself, but then Costard comes running back in with a mis-delivered letter addressed to Rosaline from Biron.

In the RSC production we saw, Biron goes through all sorts of antics to keep his compatriots from the letter, but as they begin to piece it back together he confesses to save himself the embarrassment of discovery. So, all guilty of breaking their vows and all truly, madly, deeply, in that lustful state of puppy-love that Shakespeare writes so often, they agree to woo the ladies.

Unfortunately, the women have word from their flamboyant servant that the noblemen are coming (dressed as Russians, no less) to make sport of them. Thinking that they cannot be serious in their suits, the women disguise themselves and exchange favors, thus confusing the men. Each pledges his undying love, but he pledges it to the wrong woman! When they return later, as themselves, the women flay them open for "infidelity" and explain that they were just taking the piss out of them. They have no intention of getting married (which is odd, considering how enamoured they seemed to be at the beginning of the play).

Well, you know how it goes. They bicker, they verbally spar, and ultimately they get word that the princess' father is dead. The women are suddenly somber and ready to leave, but the men are having nothing of that. They convince them to stay for "The Nine Worthies" (the B-team's production) using the logic that someone's performance has to be worse than the King's (aka, the horribly obvious Russian disguises). After a rather cruel roast, the women issue their ultimatum and depart. If the men can remain faithful for a year and a day, then the women will permit their courtships to continue.

Rosaline's is the hardest edict to follow; she tells Biron that he must go to the hospitals and use his wit to make sick people laugh, and if he cannot make them laugh then he must stop the mockery all together. I'm not sure if Biron goes through with it; in fact, I'd be surprised if he did, but that's the point of open-endings, isn't it? We don't know. It's like Measure for Measure in that respect. Does Isabella marry the Duke? Who knows.

This is one of those plays that keeps you laughing until the last 10 minutes. Then there's a moment of quizzical glances around the theatre as we all wonder whether we've seen a tragedy or a comedy. Maybe it's not quite as dark as the other mixed-mode plays, but it's definitely not a typical romance. Then again, when is Shakespeare ever interested in being typical?

If you haven't guessed it yet, Biron is my favourite. The fact that he was played by TV's current Dr. Who (David Tennant, also Harry Potter's Barty Crouch, Jr.) is only secondary to the great lines that Shakespeare gives him. As the other characters describe him: "Biron is like an envious sneaping frost / that bites the first-born infants of the spring." Now really, who doesn't love a figurative baby-biter? No one, that's who. Biron (Tennant) is the one in the blue mole-skin, in case you were wondering. I have never been a fan of what Chrissie and I affectionately call "diaper pants," but this man made them work.

The RSC chose to set the play in the country, staging the whole thing around a large tree that (I presume) is in the forest near and around the field where the ladies are staying. The men never go into court, at least not when we see them, so I don't know how useful the court v. country debate is here. There's really not that much evaluation of the environment, mostly it's just playful banter. Either way, the staging was gorgeous. The "leaves" acted as a curtain and camouflage, and Tennant climbed up and down the limbs like a monkey. I never realized what a tremendous physical actor he is; Dr. Who really doesn't do him credit, and I understand why he's ready to return to Shakespeare.

Tennant's wasn't the only face we recognized, though. His love interest, Rosaline, was played by Nina Sosanya of Love Actually fame. For you boys (all of whom will probably NOT be familiar with this actress or film), she plays a minor character called Annie. OK, I really shouldn't pick on the boys here. I didn't know any of this before Gager pointed it out to me, but my point is that these are some seriously diversified, gifted performers. They do a great job! I guess that's why it's the Royal Shakespeare Company.

They did such a good job that I bought myself a ticket for the "it" performance of the year, the one that you couldn't get tickets for if you tried, the one that's been sold out since the first day tickets went on sale: Hamlet, opening night, starring David Tennant in the lead role and featuring Patrick Stewart (yes, Élise, Jean Luc) as Claudius. The reviews are mind boggling, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as far as I'm concerned, so I took my money for the St. Tropez trip (which isn't happening anyways due to unforeseeable circumstances) and invested it in a somewhat legally re-sold ticket, a bus, and a hostel. I'm stupid, I know, but I don't regret it. I'm so excited I can't really sit still. It took me a good long time just to convince myself to sit down and type this much. I can't wait!


Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed the play. But how did you manage the photos, since the RSC specifically asks that people not use any kind of recording/photographic device during the performance.

Ray Yaegle said...

I didn't take them during the performance. I took them as they set the stage to let people sit down, and I took them at curtain call. They really should word that warning better, don't you think?

And, you know, not using my flash helped.

Anonymous said...

I thought the pics looked like figurines in a model. Real people, real good, but maybe a little long winded. I'm proud of you anyway. It looks like you have real potential.

Ray Yaegle said...

Stop leaving cryptic, anonymous messages on my blog!

Anonymous said...

You made some good points there. I did a search on the subject and barely found any specific details on other websites, but then happy to be here, seriously, appreciate that.

- Lucas