LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _RSC.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _18th MAY.

April 18, 2024

images © Johan Persson @ RSC.

On paper, it’s something of a curious starting pistol for the RSC’s new joint artistic directors, Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey, to be launching their tenure with Love’s Labour’s Lost. For a start, it ranks amongst the lesser-known and least played of the Bard’s outings, and to pitch a slightly more muted, grounded comedy so soon after the fantastical elation of perhaps the definitive Shakespeare comedy, with Eleanor Rhode’s raucous reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream so fresh and recent in the memory, posits the risk of looking like an also-ran.

And yet the bedevilment is in the details, and whilst Emily Burns’ production may not have the high-concept bells and whistles and high fantasy of Midsummer, it carries itself with a lightness, whimsy and, yes, silliness all of its own. It also boasts some wattage – the big pull and poster boy (quite literally) for the piece being Bridgerton’s Luke Thompson as the charming Berowne. And, bookended with some geopolitical and emotional heft, this slightly truncated version of the text does a terrific job of bringing the tale’s sensibilities and ideas onto a distinctly contemporary footing.

The central thread of Lost interweaves the tale of a young princess (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) seeking to reclaim her dying father’s land, with that of three friends who have made a vow of learning and abstinence to its current king (Abiola Owokoniron). Perhaps inevitably, the four young men, sworn to take neither company nor pleasure from the fairer sex, each become immediately smitten with one of the princess’ court (or in the case of King Ferdinand, said princess herself), and the expected hijinks ensure.

As touched upon, Burns and her team pitch this take firmly within a modern framework. Navarre itself is handsomely realised as something akin to Apple Park via a Pacific spa resort, with the four men at the heart of the tale seemingly equally plucked from Silicon Valley. Mobile phones are commonplace, with Brandon Bassir’s Dumaine a hostage to both the selfie and possibly even a TikTok or two, and the ladies holding their judgement court and hearsay via, naturally, a few swipes of social media. And, fittingly for a tale that sets its female minds as the superior power players, Bermudez’ princess and her entourage are themselves pant-suit wearing, golf-buggy commandeering women on a mission.

“In an age of Tates and Musks, it’s a canny pitch…”

In an age of Tates and Musks, it’s a canny pitch. For whilst Thompson and co’s oath-breaking, cupid-struck band of bros are fairly harmless – and often quite hilarious – in their attempts to win over their lady loves (brace yourselves for Backstreet Boys on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre…), the undercurrent of female empowerment that ebbs through Lost, and a refusal to yield to more infantile notions of love and lust lends it a refreshingly blunt and, again, contemporary edge.

If that all sounds a touch preachy, then fear not. Whilst it is innately a less punchier and altogether more contemplative affair than, say, Midsummer or Twelfth Night, with something of a stop-start jolt to some of its character rumination and interludes in particular, Burns does a strong job keeping the comedy rarely a beat or two away.

Particularly funny are this production’s take on the outlandish Don Armado (Jack Bardoe), a larger-than-life, tennis playing and short-shorts wearing Spaniard vying for the affections of young worker, Jaquenetta (Marienella Phillips) and a down-on-his luck Costard (Nathan Foad). Bardoe is particularly animated and a whole lot of fun in a hilarious, ridiculous role, that bounces well off of Foad’s deliciously dry and camp put-upon. Elsewhere, Tony Gardner makes for a gloriously stuffy and self-important Holofernes.

Of its leads, Melanie-Joyce Bermudez brings gravitas and dimension to her Princess, particularly strong in her scenes as political strategist and regent in waiting. Ioanna Kimbook lends a venerable warmth to her Rosaline, feeling the most grounded and ‘real’ of the almost Desperate Housewives power foursome. Speaking of which, Burns and the company inject plenty of sass and even occasional venom into the ladies’ circle, casting down even entire Nations with derisory asides. But even at its most seemingly vicious, it’s consummately entertaining cattiness.

Luke Thompson delivers an impressive RSC debut, injecting plenty of charm and fun into what could easily be quite rudimentary or even mawkish passages…”

Luke Thompson delivers an impressive RSC debut, injecting plenty of charm and fun into what could easily be quite rudimentary or even mawkish passages with a likeable, roguish Berowne. The previously mentioned Brandon Bassir, too, is a terrific, energised and suitably laddish Dumaine.

A funny, likeable, mature retelling of one of Shakespeare’s less prolific pieces may have been something of a roll of the dice for the new captains of the good ship RSC. And yet, glancing over the forthcoming 2024/25 season, with a number of less obvious choices given the star treatment and being brought front and centre, it’s clear that there is a vision and direction to pluck at every thread and string of the Bard’s catalogue and see what gems can be unearthed, or even forged.

As a litmus for what’s to come, this funny, charming, surprisingly modern revisit to Love’s Labour’s Lost is a strong, confident start, and pitches this new era for the RSC as one very ready to be still and contemplative in living art, and a court more than a little Academe…

A confident, charming and funny kickstart to a new era for the RSC. Thompson delivers a charismatic debut, and Burns forges a contemporary comedy with edges of purpose and weight. A tropical getaway well worth jetsetting off to.

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