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Loves’s Labour’s Lost

Sunday Telegraph 20th August 1978

According to Dr Johnson, many passages in “Love’s Labour’s Lost are ‘mean, childish and vulgar’ and ‘ought not to have been exhibited to a virgin queen.’ John Barton’s exquisitely delicate production at Stratford makes this judgement seem even more eccentric than usual.

With the aid of his designer, Ralph Koltai, he from the first brings a nip of autumn to this work of Shakespeare’s spring. In the park where the King of Navarre and his three companions vow celibacy in order to devote themselves to ‘a little academe, still and contemplative,’ the trees are already sere; so that when the Princess of France and her attendant ladies arrive on their mission and are refused entry to the palace, one guesses that they will soon be shivering in their tents.

Shakespeare devised no play simpler in plot or more complex in verbal wit. The four men, and above all Berowne, are initially as much infatuated with language as with the new arrivals. Only at the close when mortality – in the shape of a messenger dressed all in black and bringing news of the King of France’s death – suddenly obtrudes, do they realise that they must learn to bridge the gap between words and feelings.

Our best Shakespearean clown, Richard Griffiths, amply justifies his unexpected casting as the King. As Berowne, Michael Pennington brilliantly conveys a courtier drunk on his own conceits – as Shakespeare must have been at the time of writing. There is an enchanting Moth from Jo James (his father, Emrys, will have to look to his dramatic laurels) and a beautifully judged Don Armado – his natural pedantry at war with his infatuation with a country slut – from Michael Hordern.

Jane Lapotaire flashes mischievously as Rosaline – regarded by some critics as Shakespeare’s portrait of his Dark Lady. But Carmen Du Sautoy’s Princess, bespectacled and gawky, suggests a character from Angela Brazil rather than from Renaissance France.

Apart from the misjudgement of having the final ‘When daisies pied …’ recited rather than sung, this production is so unfailingly inventive and yet loyal to the playwright, that I regard it as the best in my memory.

The Financial Times, 14th April 1979, B.A. Young

Welcome indeed is John Barton’s pretty production from Stratford, the most enjoyable “Love’s Labour’s Lost” that I have ever seen. Realising that the polysyllabic jocularities of the would-be intellectuals are no longer very funny (though in their time they no doubt raised the same superior smiles as Pseuds’ Corner does today), Mr Barton has concentrated in the less affected parts of the play.

‘Finding’ not putting: none of the evening’s laughs plays against the text, most are positively drawn from it. To make the King of Navarre and the Princess of France a pair of bespectacled highbrows who resolve into ordinary student jokes as soon as the initial drive is relaxed is original but valid, and it gives Richard Griffiths as the King an opportunity for one of the best comedy performances in town at the moment. Carmen Du Sautoy as the Princess has not the same chances; her part is a more serious one: but she meshes perfectly with Mr Griffiths.

Inevitably, emphasis is thrown on the rougher characters. There never was such an enjoyable Costard, as Allan Hendrick’s, eager to take over every scene like a barrack-room comic (though he still doesn’t know has to pronounce ‘half-penny’). In some curious way, David Lyons’ taciturn Dull contrives to be funnier than Paul Brooke’s Holofernes and David Suchet’s Nathaniel, funny as they are within the limits of Pseuds’ Corner lines.

It is Tony Church’s bad luck to come up against an outstandingly good boy as Moth (Jo James last night, though he is to alternate with another). While Mr Church fails to find much savour in his sesquipedalian pomposities, Mr James both in his pert dialogue and in the singing-lesson with which Mr Barton has fleshed out Shakespeare’s single obscure word ‘Concolinet,’ reveals himself already as a talented comedian.

At the romantic heart of the play are Michael Pennington’s Berowne and Jane Lapotaire’s Rosaline. Mr Pennington is now an exceedingly good young actor who, if the current theatrical fashion had not outlawed such people, would be a star; he has all the best poetry in the play and delivers it magically. Rosaline has no such opportunities, but Miss Lapotaire, as aristocratic as playful, leads a charming trio of ladies-in-waiting.

The comedy is never forced: it all grows out of natural occupations, instinctive gestures apt at the moment – though Mr Griffiths’ business with his bouncing sword, that seems to surprise him as much as us, is something of a wonder. (Can he always do it?) The final rustic entertainment gets no more out of hand than it should, and is touchingly called to order by Paul Brooke’s gentle ‘This is not generous, not gentle’ to the unmannerly Navarrais lords. As the light fades on Ralph Koltai’s lovely woodland scene, and the songs about the cuckoo and the owl come to an end – spoken not sung – the sound of a real owl comes from afar to finish a lovely evening on a properly sentimental note.

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