The Royal Shakespeare Company have a genuine hit on their hands with Love’s Labour’s Lost. The acting is natural yet marvelous, with every scene-carrying performance balanced with a scene-stealing one. The musical interludes are delightful, with an unexpected edge of Sondheim. And then there is the extraordinary mechanics of the set, which slides around now in two dimensions like the 15 puzzle, now in three dimensions like a Rubik’s cube. This lesser-known play starts as a comedy and ends as something else, not quite a tragedy but a somber memento mori. Director Christopher Luscombe and the RSC have, like many others this year, used the World War I centenary as a hook, and the guns of August mesh well with the mordant turn.
Love’s Labour’s Won, or Much Ado About Nothing, which is paired with LLL in the company’s repertoire, does not fare as well, though same actors appear and the line delivery and staging still make it a fine performance. As always with this play, the problem is in the script and the problem is Claudio/Hero.
Claudio is a jerk. He claims an idolatrous love for Hero in the opening, yet refuses to believe her when she speaks to him of her innocence at the spoiled wedding. He does no meaningful penance for his error; Harry in When Harry Met Sally far outgrovels him, and that’s just for turning hot and cold; and like Harry, Claudio gets the girl anyway. Hero is generally treated like a toaster one man might collect on another’s behalf or take back for a refund, and she collapses once attacked. Like Taming and Measure, the story is gender-politically dodgy but can be presented as cynical commentary on the commodification of women, and Beatrice’s speeches support this tilt. It could work well if set in an arranged-marriage culture, among the Hasidim, etc.
Luscombe and the RSC have however set the action after the Great War, after the first votes for women, and, more significantly, after the action of LLL, where the women easily outmaneuvered the men and imposed an ultimatum. Though virgin marriage for property was visibly practiced in Britain as late as 1981, the sight of Claudio getting away with things and Hero tearful rather than righteously angry along with Beatrice is jarring amid the modernizing touches in dress and kit, and the more so because the same cast impressed with their subtle performances in LLL.
You can’t bring the writer back in to rejig but there are other ways to solve the problem. For example, it might have been made clear through readings and business that Claudio and Hero are immature as the crazy kids in True Love or Clerks, and they learn to be less gullible. Alternatively it might be signaled that this is a particularly retrograde social set compared to the French of LLL. Or extra female extras might have been used to redress Shakespeare’s customary tilt toward men, and show how the loss of sons affected the social scene after the war. (For once, even Don Pedro doesn’t have to be alone.)
Playing straight and by the book just clashes with too much that we know or think we know already, and particularly with the 20th century progress narrative. The RSC version I saw in 2006, with Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millsom, also left a sour taste in the mouth about Claudio/Hero, but less so because it was set in relatively unfamiliar 1950s Cuba and the acting was more go-to-hell, with bombastic senior males and spitfire Beatrice. That show was the hit of the season. It can be done. In the meantime, there is still that amazing James Bond stage, whose workings seem even more magical from high up in the cheap and standing seats.