Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Stratford Festival (a review)

I frankly worried that we might be wasting our money on tickets for Love’s Labour’s Lost (Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Stratford, Ontario). According to the brochure, “The members of the 2007 Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre perform alongside senior artists in this delightful comic feast of language and love,” and we saw on closer examination that the cast would include no fewer than nine young actors from the Conservatory.

Alana Hawley

And the kids weren’t just serving tea on stage. Alana Hawley (Stratford debut) was down to play Princess of France and Trent Pardy (Stratford debut) the King of Navarre, while Dalal Badr (Stratford debut) was cast as Rosaline and Ian Lake (Stratford debut) as Berowne. Were we to pay top buck for a student performance?

Fortunately, we had nothing to worry about. The young actors acquitted themselves very well, the play was a delight, and we enjoyed ourselves very much.

The dialogue in Love’s Labour’s Lost is as witty and erudite — it’s not for everyone — as the storyline is thin. The young King of Navarre (in southern France) has resolved to devote three years of his life to the rigorous study of philosophy, literature, and science; three of his friends (Dumaine, Longaville, and Berowne) have vowed to join him. The four have also agreed that, while they study, they will live monkish lives of fasting and early rising, and they will avoid the fairer sex.

Their vows come under attack almost immediately when the Princess of France arrives in the vicinity on a diplomatic mission from her father. With her is a retinue of lovelies: Maria, Katharine, and Rosaline. Romance and, inevitably, broken vows follow closely behind.

The play satirizes people who make vows of abstinence and asceticism that they cannot reasonably keep. Of course, vows like that seem quaint in our day, where the only vows most young persons make are to live exactly as they please.

But the play also satirizes foolish young men in love, a theme that will never lose its relevance. The latter half of Love’s Labour’s Lost consists mostly of episodes in which the love-smitten scholars try one thing after another — dreadful love poems, showing off for the women in hunting contests, disguising themselves as traveling Russians — to impress the young women, who indeed require little persuasion. In this show, these scenes are played to perfection.

Peter Donaldson as Don Adriano de Armado

Good as the young actors are (we especially liked Alana Hawley as the Princess of France), the show’s best comic lines are delivered by Brian Tree as Costard, a carnally-minded laborer around the court of the King who mucks up everything he tries. He wants to gratify his animal urges by marrying the delectable and willing Jacquenetta (Stacie Steadman), but somehow loses her to Don Adriano de Armado (Peter Donaldson), a pretentious Spaniard who is the butt of the King’s jokes. Asked by two of the scholars to deliver love letters, Costard mixes them up and misdelivers them because he cannot read. (I infer that the original audience for this play was not the unwashed in the mosh pit at the Globe, but a sophisticated court audience who would have found illiteracy amusing.) Our audience at the Tom Patterson theater looked forward to each of Costard’s hilarious appearances on stage.

Michael Langham

Michael Langham

Love’s Labour’s Lost is directed by Michael Langham, who has frequently directed the play; this production shows the hand of a director who knows exactly how he wants the lines to be spoken and the scenes to be played. Mr. Langham has just celebrated his 89th birthday. Long ago, from 1956 to 1967, he was Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. His 1961 production of Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Stratford Festival was, I learn, one of the landmark Shakespeare productions of the twentieth century, demonstrating how much this play can actually be enjoyed in performance.

By contrast, none of the young actors can be much older than 24 or 25. No doubt thanks in good part to Mr. Langham’s direction, their acting was mature beyond their years. Much of this play is written in verse; their delivery preserved a sense of poetry without ever becoming trite or monotonous.

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