How fitting that Oxford Theatre Guild's Love's Labour's Lost should be gracing the lawns and long borders of Trinity College. Director Simon Tavener has set the play in Oxford in 1895, in the closing years of Victoria's reign. In that year the all-female St Hilda's College was celebrating its 2nd birthday, Somerville College had 65 female students, and there was even talk – immediately squashed - that the newly-built public underground toilets on St Giles should have had a women's section! There were by now more that 50,000 telephones in use in Britain, and in Italy Marconi was transmitting radio signals to a distance of two miles. This was a time in history when there was a new optimism about the power of the rational mind and the scientific method. In his play, therefore, Shakespeare's satirical comment, primarily through the medium of the King of Navarre and the twin pedants Holofernes and Nathaniel, on the foolishness of obsessively pursuing learning at the expense of truly living, has particular interest.
The cool, blustery weather following rain on Wednesday evening was far from ideal for swaddled spectators or for the cast, and in the second half as the gloom deepened and the spotlights came into play I pitied the Princess' ladies who must have been shivering in their fine court dresses. But the show must go on, and as we trickled in through the wrought-iron gates from Parks Rd there was a knot of young men in striped blazers playing cricket without a care in the world. The stage was a dais backed by four ancient stone columns, perhaps inspired by those outside the Sheldonian Theatre, topped by busts of philosophers and their ilk, the whole flanked by dense yew trees.
Our cricketers transformed themselves into The King of Navarre and his three lords who proceeded to swear an oath to scholarship, comprising fasting and avoiding women for three years, and the plot, simple in outline but quite intricate in detail, unrolled itself, commencing with Don Armado, a visitor from Spain, complaining by letter about the rustics Costard and Jaquenetta canoodling in the park. It turns out that the Spaniard has bad faith, and when the Princess (of France) and her ladies unexpectedly arrive at court, the testing of the oath and opportunities for duplicity double and re-double.
I thought that Mr Tavener's production had plenty of imaginative touches – the interpolation of arias from The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and (I think) Trial by Jury was a charming idea, contemporary of course to the play's updating - and the costume design by Rebecca Jones and Damilola Odimayo was terrific in every single case. Some scenes, and Act I scene 1 was a case in point, were a little static, with the players strung across the acting area or bunched together in prolonged huddles, and sometimes the stage seemed smaller than it actually was, with horizontal space exploited more adroitly than depth of space.
But Mr Tavener's work with the cast on the language, which must have been intensive, paid off handsomely. The verse, often in rhyming couplets, reflects the Elizabethans’ sensual and extravagant preoccupation with words, with every character seeming to exult in sophisticated speech as if playing a game of table tennis. The cast were word-perfect - no small matter with this play - and had a firm grasp of the verse rhythms. Here I must especially commend Tomas Mason as Berowne: complex lines, taken often at the speed of a Gatling gun, yet delivered by Mr Mason with great clarity. When this verbal understanding is combined, as it was here, with supple movement and great stage presence, this all adds up to an outstanding performance. Nor was Andy Buckingham's King, playful yet courtly, overshadowed by Mr Mason's fireworks.
Tim Ayres' Don Armado, dapper in velveteen knickerbockers, looked like a cross between a matador and an aged gigolo. This was a blustering foreigner, a preposterous courtly lover. But Mr Ayres probed further in managing to endow this Iberian windbag with a touch of dignity – cleverly done. This ability to find something serious under the foolishness was shared by Richard Readshaw, playing Costard the illiterate under-gardener (the name is a type of apple of yesteryear). Costard's one of Shakespeare's 'clowns' along the lines of the Gravedigger in Hamlet or Lance in Two Gentleman of Verona. Mr Readshaw makes the most of his character's discrepancy between his intoxication with the sound of words and inability to handle them.
Fleur Yerbury-Hodgson in bowler hat and hacking jacket was an intelligent, interesting Boyet, the aide who helps shape the ladies' expectations of masculinity; the whetstone on which they sharpen their wits. The two prating, soi-disant intellectuals Holofernes and Nathaniel were plausibly played by Nick Quartley and Jonathan Kay, and I much liked Daisy Imbert's playing of Moth, the page, an androgynous sprite dressed a bit like an off-duty bellhop at a New York hotel, a low-key but didactic commentator on events. Lala Redin Drizhal was a spirited princess, giving the King and his courtiers as good as she got. The Daily Info's own Madeleine Herbert as Katherine was emphatic in diction, natural in her reaction acting and would be seen to advantage in bigger parts.