Last night I fought the cold wind all the way to Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts to see the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre of London touring company perform Love’s Labour’s Lost. I’d been to Schimmel once before for a film showing during the Tribeca Film Festival (Fellini’s “Spirits of the Dead” in which Terence Stamp seemed to be playing Peter O’Toole, but perhaps it was really himself in a Poe-ish sort of way).
The performance space had been transformed, replicating, to the greatest extent possible on a standard proscenium stage, the Globe. The staging gave us Shakespeare’s play as it was intended, not because Shakespeare wouldn’t like what we do now, but because the sort of space used last night was what the King’s Men (the theatre company of which Shakespeare was a ‘sharer,’ actor, and playwright) had played in, the standard theatrical architecture of Elizabethan England. The stage juts out roundly, goes up to a second level, and provides hiding places in the way of trees painted on curtains, a ladder climbed behind such a “tree” to the second level, a balcony for the musicians available to do double duty (but that would be another play), and of course the balcony of the theatre itself, generally reserved for spectators (“gallery” in the real Globe), was also used by the musicians. Actors entered from any aisle in the orchestra available to them, the small balcony on the stage, and two routes from either side of the stage, a door up left, a door up right, and a double door center. And, of course, two pillars afford the actors more space to play around as well as seating areas. At the actual Globe, the pillars would have held up the roof sheltering the stage from inclement weather. The groundlings, in what would now be the orchestra, would just get soaked.
The Schimmel does not have the best acoustics, so actors turned away from my area (house right) were a bit difficult to hear. Yes, no miking. Remember that? Just actors’ actual voices. I loved it. These actors played to the entire house, left, right, and center. They even played to the balcony although no one was seated there.
So that’s the layout, which was exciting in and of itself, knowing that this was how the plays were originally seen. The old Globe was noisier, of course, without our modern rules or expectations of people actually paying attention to the play instead of socializing. Those audiences were as raucous as the performers, not to mention the nut shells crunching on the floor of the groundlings’ area. Since I’m feeling particularly dorky, here’s a sketch of the 16th Century Swan:
Actors were not celebrities then. Actually the descriptions of actors at the time were pretty rude. And, of course, all those marvelous female parts were played by boys. Some changes are definitely for the better. (Yes, I’ve seen several all-male productions, and they work brilliantly, differently, quite excitingly. Still, I do like to see women playing women.)
Back to last night and LLL, when I realized I’d never seen it done well before. The players last night did it absolutely right, full of gambols and romps, singing and dancing, live music (not as background, the music was frequently cued and stopped by the characters themselves), raunchy sight gags and routines, and just plain fun.
The story – slight. The characters – rough sketches of later ones. This is young Shakespeare, brash, bold and bawdy, trying out his verbal skills, allowing his slight characters to be transformed into people by the company of actors.
It is said that the primary romance between Berowne and Rosaline in LLL is a precursor to, or just plain practice for the later, precisely drawn, bickering lovers Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. I like to think Berowne failed the challenge offered by Rosaline at the end of LLL, and it takes years to become Benedick to Rosaline’s Beatrice. Much Ado’s characters are more sophisticated, matured by life, but do bear some resemblance to these younger, sillier creatures, so I’ll go with that theory.
By the traditional labels, this play should not be called a comedy because the lovers do not end up together at the end. Years ago my friend Matthew posited that the moment those clever, witty, sassy, courageous women in Shakespeare’s plays are married or betrothed, they shut up. They stop speaking at all, or they only speak what their husbands ordain. The ladies in LLL say “no” to the young men and therefore -- not betrothed and still free -- they keep on speaking wittily. Hmmm.
Pre show, the actors and musicians milled about the theatre, chatting with the audience in the half hour prior to the curtainless start. Some of the actors carried deer – a male deer and a female deer – and played a mute puppet show implying a bit of wooing. The female deer declined, but the male deer was persistent and flattering. Little did we know that the deer were Chekhov’s gun.
In the opening of the play, four young men with nothing better to do make a vow to live together for three years, abjuring all contact with the feminine sex (and naturally making laws to punish women if they come anywhere near them during that time – including cutting out their tongues! Hmmm again.) in order to devote themselves to “study.” Berowne (delightfully if not altogether articulately played by Trystan Gravelle, with an often indecipherable accent, but a marvelous wit and soaring vocal range) is the outlier; he recognizes how absurd and impossible is the pledge required by the King of Navarre (a little dorky and a little clever, sweetly played by Philip Cumbus). Nonetheless, peer pressure wins out, and all four friends sign the pledge – the other two were physically and verbally similar, almost indistinguishable, and they would have been utterly so had I been farther away from them. Both, however, were extremely funny, so cheers to Jack Farthing’s “Dumaine” and Will Mannering’s “Longaville.” Cheers to their fabulous names as well.
That’s the set-up.
Main plot line: the imminent arrival of an embassage from the King of France led by said King’s extremely marriageable daughter, the Princess of France (sharply played by Michelle Terry). The Princess is accompanied by three ladies, Rosaline (Thomasin Rand), Katherine (Siân Robins-Grace), and Maria (Jade Anouka). By the King’s new rules, these ladies cannot enter his court, so he houses them in a field, like cattle. Naturally each of the young men falls in love with each of the women, but they must be mum on this or break their vow.
Second plot line: Don Adriano De Armado is a lilting bumbling Spaniard, hilariously played to the rafters by Paul Ready. It was his entrance that really made the production kick in for me. His body and voice bounce about uncertainly, he’s sweetly absurd, with a pose he copied from an aristocratic portrait. He’s in love with the “country wench,” Jacquenetta (a hilarious Rhiannon Oliver with a voice in sweet counterpoint to her rough character), which is also against the King’s edict – no one gets to consort with females for the three years of the King’s pledge. Meanwhile, Costard the clown (played to the vulgar hilt by Fergal McElherron) is found guilty of treason for “being with a woman” (yes, that same Jacquenetta) and is left in Armado’s custody for punishment. Armado frees Costard to deliver a love letter to Jacquenetta.
Plot lines entangled: Berowne uses Costard to send a love letter to Rosaline. Costard mis-delivers the letters. This is the catalyst for confusion on which this play resides.
It’s all terribly silly. What makes this production work is the way in which the silliness is performed. From lewd jokes, hiding in plain sight, dancing and cavorting, leaping, spying, disguises and deceptions, even hunting the stag. The ladies hunt:
The spell is broken by the arrival of a messenger informing the Princess of France that her father is dead. The Princess and her entourage instruct the King and each of their wooers that a betrothal, while presently impossible, may be wrung from the ladies if the gentlemen perform certain stallion-breaking duties over the next twelve months and a day.
And then everyone dances and sings!
The costumes are period and perfect, the use of the stage – nay, the whole theatre – is engaging. At the end of the interval, during which the ladies picnicked onstage, each of the four came into the audience offering slices of fruit on metal plates. Sweet. And I do believe this is the first time I’ve laughed at Holofernes’ (Christopher Godwin) manipulation of the English and/or Latin language(s), or at the performance of the Not-Quite-Nine Worthies. Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director for Shakespeare's Globe, directed this production, and although I doubt I can pronounce it correctly, I will remember that name and go see whatever else he offers.
So what if it’s not a play. It’s a frolic, a mere dalliance, a trifle, and a delightful one.
Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre of London at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University, NYC. 11 December 2009.