Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing)

Seen: March 4, live broadcast at Haydn English Cinema Vienna

Cast: Sam Alexander, Peter Basham, William Belchambers, Edward Bennett, Nick Haverson, John Hodgkinson, David Horovitch, Tunji Kasim, Sophie Khan, Oliver Lynes, Emma Manton, Chris McCalphy, Frances McNamee, Peter McGovern, Chris Nayak, Jamie Newall, Roderick Smith, Flora Spencer-Longhurst, Michelle Terry, Harry Waller, Thomas Wheatley

Directed by Christopher Luscombe

What I am starting to realise after nearly one and a half years of RSC and NTL broadcasts is that the RSC productions really fail to knock me out of my boots. This is especially disappointing because there are so many ways Shakespeare’s work can be interpreted and brought to stage other than just reciting the words. While they are all good and nice, ‘nice’ is probably the worst thing I can say about a theatre production. It’s the equivalent of a band playing their album note for note and then leaving the stage; I could have listened to that – or in case of theatre read the playtext – at home. Actually, I even prefer strongly disliking a production if I can respect what those involved tried to do. If you’ve read my reviews of The Ruling Class and A Midsummer Night’s Dream you might have noticed how much I appreciate when having balls actually pays off.

I held back on writing this thinking that maybe I would see things a bit differently after having finished the online course connected to the production (https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/much-ado-about-nothing ) but, alas, no. While that course was so much better than the Hamlet one (I can honestly say I haven’t learned anything new except the professor’s obsession with Freud) and those from the RSC involved all seem like very nice people (in case of people, my above definition of ‘nice’ of course does not apply in the least), the most innovative things about the production remain calling it Love’s Labour Won, following the theory this is actually the one Shakespaeare play thought to have been lost and making it a companion production to Love’s Labour’s Lost (see iwishyoumuchmirth’s review https://butmadnorth.com/2015/02/12/loves-labours-lost/) and moving it from Messina to England after WWI.

The setting was a bit unusual in the beginning, but it made sense and the Christmas tree was a great prop, especially for Edward Bennett’s Benedick. Both Bennett and Michelle Terry (Beatrice) were very good, even if Terry seemed to have momentarily forgotten she was wearing a microphone, so she was painfully shrill at the very beginning. Bennett also proved apt at adapting to unforeseen situations like a rather vocal patron or his own corpsing.

Setting the play this close to the 20s allowed for some entertaining musical numbers as well as great costumes. While I’m generally not the biggest fan of Shakespeare’s comedies and there are of course a lot of issues viewing them as a woman born in the 1970s instead of 1600s, Much Ado is actually the one I do like because I enjoy the quickfire bantering between the two perceived as the main characters even though in fact they hardly have any time together on stage.

I usually find more humour in the tragedies, so I might not be the best person judging this production. I can for example never relate to the audience laughing at ‘Kill Claudio’. The play is however one my sister’s favourites, so maybe she wants to add her view.

To sum it up: it was an entertaining time in the cinema, but I wouldn’t want to watch this again.

The Ruling Class

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written by Peter Barnes

directed by Jamie Lloyd

cast: Ron Cook, Michael Cronin, Kathryn Drysdale, Serena Evans, Paul Leonard, Elliot Levey, Forbes Masson, James McAvoy, Joshua McGuire, Anthony O’Donnell, Rosy Benjamin, Andrew Bloomer, Oliver Lavery, Geoffrey Towers

seen February 25 2015, Trafalgar Studios

Englishmen like to hear the truth about themselves.

Warning: I usually try to keep my reviews spoiler free (with the exception of Shakespeare), but the nature of this play makes it impossible. If you are still to see this: congratulations, you’re in for a real treat. Do yourself the favour of being surprised and please do come back, read on and comment after you have seen it. I’ll just say that I have so far seen three out of the four best actor nominees from today’s Olivier nominations and while all three were great in their own way, I’m rooting for James McAvoy.

End of Spoiler Free Zone

Can someone tell me why this play isn’t performed more often?! Not even three minutes into the play and I was already glad I bought the playtext along with the programme. I tried to think of which line to put into the short description and ended up with one or two bookmarks.

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The play starts with the 13th Earl of Gurney shuffling off this mortal coil in a rather unusual manner. I was glad it was clearly visible how they ensured the actor not suffering the same fate; scenes like that one tend to make me a bit nervous. His brother, sister-in-law and dim-witted wannabe politician nephew Dinsdale immediately start to scheme how they can get around the will by having the new Earl – a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he’s God – married off and get him certified as soon as an heir is born.

Upon the 14th Earl of Gurney’s entry, he is described in the playtext as having a ‘magnetic personality’, so no pressure there with casting the lead. Additionally, the actor has to sing, dance, unicyle (can this be used as a verb?) and be believable in his journey from God of Love who ‘can defend his beliefs with great skill’ to member of the house of lords/Jack the Ripper Jr.

Everyone who has seen James McAvoy’s film work (especially Filth) knows he’s good at what he’s doing, but his Jack – or ‘J.C.’ – is something else. He has the audience’s attention right from the start and even cynical old me caught myself irrationally wanting JC to succeed when he was trying to perform a miracle. Not that it’s that hard to root for someone with a family like that, played masterfully especially by Ron Cook (Sir Charles) and Serena Evans (Lady Claire) as well as Kathryn Drysdale who actually has to belt out part of La Traviata’s drinking song as actress Grace Shelley, the future Lady Gurney. Even Tucker, the faithful butler, turns out not to be what he seems.

As soon as the drinking song first got played on the flute, I was cursing inwardly because I can never get it out of my head when I hear it somewhere. I shouldn’t have fretted though, because it was ‘Dem Bones’ (not Alice in Chains”Them Bones’, the other one) that took up residence in my brain for days. Regarded superficially this was a funny, surprising sing and dance interlude (and quite the workout for the actors involved). For me it was the moment it became chillingly clear that the inner fight of JC vs Jack had already been decided in favour of Jack, and the 1888 one to boot.

Elliot Levey is finally not playing a complete sleazeball, but JC’s German psychiatrist who gets entangled in the Gurneys’ mess. While quoting Goethe’s Faust is all good and well, there is no ‘p’ in ‘verdammt’. 😉

I said earlier that I was glad to have bought the playtext. This is for several reasons; firstly, I am likely to actually re-read this from time to time. I could have put hilarious quotes in this post to the point of copyright infringement and would still have had some left. Secondly, it was really interesting to see what changes were made in this production. The flowers that are imaginary in the playtext actually came up through the floor in the theatre; Mrs. Piggot-Jones and Mrs. Treadwell weren’t male actors pulling a Lady Bracknell initially. I preferred this version with multi-roled Forbes Masson and Paul Leonard enhancing the women’s ridiculousness.

As an added bonus, the guy sitting next to me on the plane looked at the book, rolled his eyes (maybe he thought I was a religious nutcase) and decided it was safe to talk company secrets with his work-mate (think huge, well known-corporation) in Austrian dialect. Him losing all colour in his face when I made a call at Vienna airport was almost as funny as the play.

I was surprised by English publications branding the play as dated. If you only see the set design and 70s clothes worn in the production maybe, and even then you could argue it fits with Richard III and East is East. However with all the debate about class currently happening, I’m really wondering how someone can consider The Ruling Class to be non-relevant. Seems suspiciously like being blinkered to me.

Whatever the case may be, I’m glad I knew about this business trip to England early enough to get tickets for this play. A tiny part of my job is watching new TV series and movies and I had just done that for three days and nights with one more day to go, so one might think I’d have had enough of staring at acting for some time. Not even remotely; there’s always room for good theatre.

To misappropriate a line of Grace Shelley:

It happens all the time. On certain nights. In front of the right audience. When the magic works.

I’d say the magic worked big time at Trafalgar Studios.

PS: Could Jamie Lloyd and Canadian director Chris Abraham please work on something together?