BBC Complete Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost

Love’s Labour’s Lost may be the most ostentatiously intellectual of Shakespeare’s plays. Replete with ornate linguistics fireworks, complex rhetorical metaphors, abstruse literary allusions, and more erudite hapax legomenons than a reader/viewer can shake a stick at, it’s not surprising that it’s one of Bill’s least popular plays amongst modern audiences. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the text is fortifiably impenetrable without extensive explanatory footnotes and glosses. In other words, one must read (and, preferably, reread again and again) before one has a hope of watching the play performed and comprehending it in the least. But even without an understanding the play is destined to provoke a sense of awe in those who delight in linguistic feasts, as this is most assuredly the Shakespeare play that makes language itself the most central feature, subject, and theme.

Like so many of Shakespeare’s early comedies, the story is simple, even though it finds him extending the cast and pairings from his earlier comedies. It concerns Ferdinand, the King of Navarre (Jonathan Kent) who has made three young scholars, Longaville (Christopher Blake), Dumain (Geoffrey Burridge), and Berowne (Mike Gwilym), swear to swear off women, play, sleep, and even food for three years as they study in their cloistered university. That is, until, they remember that the Princess of France (Maureen Lipman), along with her female train, Maria (Katy Behean), Katharine (Petra Markham), and Rosaline (Jenny Agutter), were previously scheduled to visit. The men have to make an exception and allow their visitation, while simultaneously swearing not to indulge in play with them.

The play also makes typically brilliant use of side-plots and characters that are pointedly juxtaposed with the central narrative. David Warner plays the witty, melancholy, but grandiloquent Don Armado who is accompanied by one of the plays “fools”, Moth (John Kane), who is joined with the other fools Costard (Paul Jesson) and Dull (Frank Williams). Paddy Navin is Jaquenetta, the plain servant girl Don Armado is after, while John Burgess plays Sir Nathaniel, and John Wells Holofernes, the satirically pretentious curate and schoolmaster, respectively. Nathaniel and Holoernes are also the catalyst for staging the play-within-the-play that serves as an epilogue for the actual play (very similar to the one in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is believed to have been written around the same time).

Like so many in the BBC Complete Shakespeare series, the cast is thoroughly solid, with a few real standouts. Mike Gwilyn, a mainstay of the series itself who also played the title roles in Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, is an intelligent yet humane Berowne, who may be the most important character in the play, given his tendency for straddling the line between being a part of the action, but also standing outside and commenting on it. Blake, Burridge, and Kent are only less appealing in their roles by comparison, but their roles hardly offer the kind of intrigue that Berowne’s does. David Warner is especially good as Don Amrado, somehow managing to capture the silliness of the character, while also playing convincingly as a sympathetic, slightly narcissistic, foolish intellect who’s very much in love’s grip. Of the three actual fools, Paul Jesson is most effective as Costard, and his interplay with the others is one of the real delights of the production.

The female counterparts are equally solid, with Maureen Lipman proving an appropriately mischievous Princess. Jenny Agutter is the best amongst the other women as a saucy Rosaline. It’s difficult to praise John Wells enough for his ability to embody the repugnant air of intellectual superiority and pomposity that surrounds Holofernes, but he certainly does it, with a diction that’s so properly precise that one can’t help but feel that his character has just emerged starched from an ironing session. He truly embodies the satirical spirit of the play, where Shakespeare is both poking fun at while reveling in the pleasures that higher learning revolves around. Holofernes can be said to be the end result of what too much study and too little actual living can produce, a being that’s so disconnected from reality that every object must be described in terms of every noun that exists to denote it.

The production is not one of the lusher in the series, and it’s marked by a spareness that serves to get out of the way of the actor’s and the linguistic wizardly. Since almost all of the play consists within the grounds of the university/estate, little else is needed besides the single set that can be easily manipulated to be a clean library or conference room. The outdoor sets are hardly convincing (though they tend not to be in this series), but it hardly interferes with the suspension of disbelief. Likewise Moshinsky’s direction seems to serve little purpose other than unobtrusively track the actor’s acting and interacting while only imposing any editorial dictation when Shakespeare did so himself within the play. One example is the scene where the four scholars subsequently march into a room, lamenting their loves, while hiding from the next one who comes in, allowing Moshinsky to cut to reaction shots of the hidden ones commenting on the others.

Overall, not only is Love’s Labour’s Lost not one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, it may be his most difficult, and it’s hard for me to say that the labor required to understand it will be rewarded by being able to see it enacted. That said, the play is a treasure trove for those who love the subject and intricacies of language itself. I couldn’t help think about the dizzying variety of ways that language is presented in the play, both in terms of its failures and successes, its intentions and unintentions. One pointed example arises when Costard is given a “remuneration” in the form of a halfpenny farthing, equating the former as denoting the other, only to pithily remark later, when he’s given a guerdon that’s “’leven-pence farthing better” than remuneration.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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