Monday 4 March 2019

Love's Labour's Lost - Theatre Review

What: Love's Labour's Lost
When: 2 - 17 March 2019
Where: Central Park Malvern
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Jennifer Sarah Dean
Musical Direction: Benjamin Almon Colley
Performed by: Adam Canny, Tref Gare, Joanna Halliday, Gareth Isaac, Emma Jevons, Alexander Lloyd, Callum Mackay, Rebecca Morton, Ellie Nunan, Henry O'brien, Jennifer Piper, Andy Song, and Emily Thompson
Choreography by: John Reed
Set by: Karli Laredo
Costumes by: Marc Mcintyre
Joanna Halliday, Rebecca Morton, and Ellie Nunan - photo by Burke Photography
Just when you thought it was safe to go into Melbourne parks again, Melbourne Shakespeare Company has taken a big risk and put on a very late Summer Shakespeare season at Central Park Malvern. Love's Labour's Lost is playing in repertory with Twelfthnight (a remount of the unfortunately shortened season in 2018) until the middle of March. Luckily, the weather is on their side.

Love's Labour's Lost is one of the trickiest of Shakespeare's plays to present and the truth is, if it was written by any other writer across the course of history it would never be seen again. Essentially it is the tale of 4 guys who swear off women for 3 years to gain fame, but then 4 women turn up and tempt them (a la Eve and the apple) into fore swearing their vows. This is not what makes it so troublesome - although the gender politics kind of suck in a modern age.

The next problem is that Shakespeare wrote this play as a commentary on the political circumstances between France and England during the time of the transition of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne and everything which was going on then. The Kingdom of Navarre were trying to lay claim to the French crown and Catherine di Medici (Dowager Queen of France) was negotiating with the Bourbons to marry off one of her daughters to control the threat.

In the meantime England was preparing to have its own female queen and this one didn't seem to want to cooperate with the convention that Queens need to marry and cede their sovereignty to the husband. Oh, and Mary Stuart was messing around with both kingdoms and had been wooed by Navarre as well, so there was a strong socio-political reason for a play which would mock the powers in ascendency whilst England settled itself into it's new order.

The problem is that the act of belittling and mocking the subjects of the play kind of sit contrary to the principles of comedy, the most important of which is there needs to be a happy ending. In Love's Labour's Lost, the guys get the girls but the King of France dies just as all confessions of love are made and - as was the Catholic requirement at the time - the women then have to go into mourning for a year and a day. The men are sent away to be good during that time and then maybe the weddings will go ahead. To quote the Bard 'Our wooing doth not end like an old play: Jack hath not Jill. These ladies' courtesy may well have made our sport a comedy/Come sir, it wants a twelvemonth and a day, and then 'twill end/That's too long for a play.' Even Shakespeare knew the play doesn't work!

To bring the story into some relevance, Dean has placed the show in Australia with the Princess of Perth (Morton) and the characters travelling to and from Brisbane and Adelaide and a little "Bintang Bogun" for the ever present disguise scenes. It's a cute idea but adds nothing to interest of relevance. We just don't have that European history of shared land, multiple sovereignty, and power politics (well we do, but not in the context presented) and Australia hasn't been around long enough for anybody to have ever spoken like that so it is effectively just a cynical device to make us think this could have been us. Add to that the fact that nothing in the direction, performance, choreography, or music supports this idea (Mcintyre's costumes do give some good connections) and the whole production is a big, barrelling question of why?

What is impressive about this production is the quality and commitment of the cast. A group of very energetic performers who know what they are doing and have developed the skills to do it quite well. The Perth ensemble are particularly tight, with Nunan and Halliday working together like two sides of coin. Morton as the Princess of Perth really does blow everyone out of the water though with her regal assuredness and her extreme vocal prowess in an unreinforced outdoor show. Canny's Boyet is also a really sophisticated crafting of character with a very modern aesthetic.

The actual play has been cut to pieces which is a shame because its biggest strength is its lingual experimentation. This aspect probably is too far away from modern language though so I understand the choice. Instead, the skeletons of the story are interspersed with the trademark array of pop song medleys.

This time, though, Colley and Dean have gone too far. There are so many songs the play runs well over the 90 minutes advertised and they keep interupting the action whilst rarely adding insight as to relationships or happenings. Cut 3 songs and this show will be 5 times better. Oh, and if you are going Australiana, maybe use Australian songs?

The clowning is sophisticated as we have come to expect from this company, but again, there is just too much of it and so we lose sense of the words and the story. This show is so full of interruptions to the narrative it becomes really hard work for the audience.

For me, this show just feels thrown together and I would suggest Dean needs to start working with a dramaturg to help flesh out ideas, work more naturally with the text and layer the semiotics of the shows. Melbourne Shakespeare Company came into the city with a bang but they are holding on the wrong things. Story is everything and in this production of Love's Labour's Lost it feels as if the story is just a coat hanger for a range of unrelated activities to hang upon.

2.5 Stars

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