The wonderfully enjoyable thing about this production is the free hand the Director has taken with all its aspects. Damien Ryan knows his material so well that he has the confidence to swoosh in some comic business from Two Gentlemen of Verona, to substitute sonnets at will, or to script-doctor whole interludes from multiple sources to create additional facets to the characters. This is very different from those directors whose claim to an innovative approach to Shakespeare masks a lack of trust in the text. For Ryan the text is his playground, he trusts it enough to build jungle gyms and flying foxes out of its lines. The result shines through in the exuberance of the actors, who are clearly having a blast.
Love’s Labours Lost holds so many of the things that are loved in Shakespeare that it is bewildering how rarely it is staged in this country. In particular, witty, bantering couples (x4), disguises and hunting metaphors are prominent. It’s just such a shame that changes in the language and cultural references mean that it is easy to miss how astonishingly, breathtakingly filthy it is. This production finds all the levels, the elevated sentiment and the sex, the joy and the bitterness.
It is such a rarity in Australia for Shakespeare to be performed in Elizabethan dress that, rather than looking conventional, it becomes a bit of a treat. Costume designer Melanie Liertz has wisely avoided fastidious period accuracy in favour of a broad feel for the silhouettes and accoutrements, with plenty of mixing. So the men are in doublets, but get to keep their trousers instead of being encumbered with hose, there are plenty of ruffs and big skirts, but no adherence to restrictive hairstyles or excesses of corsetry, and Constable Dull can still show up in his shorts.
In this version, Ryan has pulled out the many instances of dubious love-lyrics written from the smitten men to their ladies and replaced them with Shakespeare’s more popular sonnets. It is a pleasure to hear these spoken aloud, but at times it runs directly counter to the nature of the original. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is actually my favourite sonnet, but written as criticism of, or at the very least a response to, the Petrarchan phrases of praise that were wildly popular at the time, and which our doting heroes are attempting to emulate.
A major element colouring this interpretation was that the women resent that they are viewed as ornamental and as tradable commodities. They are heartily sick of being called ‘fair’ and of functioning as anybody’s en-pedestaled muse. This is a really valuable take on the themes of the piece, but unfortunately it does result in the girls spending a sizeable chunk of their time being cross with everybody, and arguing when there was nothing to argue about. Rosaline appeared to be angry with Biron from the get-go, and I couldn’t think of any reason why she should be. The “Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?” exchange is funny when tossed off lightly, perplexing when it is a rebuke. Longaville and Maria gave the most convincing performance of being genuinely entranced by one another, and there was a welcome nod to understandings of gender fluidity, past and present, worked in here. If only we could see the women find as much fun in their escapades as the men. Tim Walter’s Biron certainly captures all the varied sides of a character it is immensely easy to fall for – the wit and the foolishness, the audacity and the accidental sincerity.
It is a real delight to hear the sparkling dialogue of this play spoken with sensitivity by such beautiful voices and, as usual, the older actors know how to dish out comic schtick so expertly that the subplot never flags.
What I wish for is for this not to be the only production of Love’s Labours Lost, expected to last us for another twenty years. I would like to be able to sample both a commentary on the frustration of being treated as an object and a riotous cohort of wenches who see the funny side of everything. It would be wonderful if, in the way we get to compare boyish effervescent Hamlet (Toby Schmitz) with aggressive, unkempt Hamlet (Josh McConville), we were to get to see the different effects of angry Rosaline and merry Rosaline, and put a freewheeling adaptation including somewhat better poetry next to the original in which the laboured verses of the lovers are part of the joke.