I went today and saw the broadcast live version of Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado) at the Sedona Film Festival. Although I have quibbles (see below), I really enjoyed it, because it achieves what any good version of Much Ado should achieve: the end of the play is a magical triumph of love between two people who choose to love each other even though they can think of lots of reasons why they shouldn’t.
The broadcast included an artistic director Greg Doran explanation of why they chose to call it Love’s Labour’s Won instead of the tradition Much Ado About Nothing. For those of you that don’t know; there are two references to a Shakespeare play know as Love’s Labour’s Won, and scholars have identified two possibilities to explain those references. One, it’s a lost play, at least one that we know of. Two, the references are mistaken about the title and refer to Much Ado. Greg Doran (and director Christopher Luscombe) are going with the latter theory.
Without taking a position on whether that theory is true or not, in this case it works pretty well, since it let’s them run LLW as a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost. I don’t like, for example, running Henry 4.1 and Henry 4.2 together as a double bill. It isn’t effective; the plays thematically are very different, and to run them as modern-day sequels ruins the individual effects of the plays. But here, Luscombe put a lot of creative energy into making it work.
[Warning: spoilers below.]
The first play, LLL, is set pre-WWI and then LLW is set post-WWI, which allowed Luscombe and his actors to make some interesting choices. For example Luscombe described in the pre-show how he and the actors choose to play Don John (Sam Alexander) and Dogberry (Nick Haverson) as shell shocked war veterans. I don’t usually like actors forcing method acting motivational techniques on Shakespeare, but I thought this one worked. Nick Haverson as Dogberry, in particular (who I unfortunately, except for one spit take, mostly found unfunny—see the Joss Whedon film Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry instead) made one really interesting choice: at the end of the “I am an ass” scene (4.2), after the lines, “Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years?” Haverson gives a really honest, touching emotional performance in which we see that it’s not easy being Dogberry.
Tunji Kasim as Claudio also made an interesting choice; after asking Don Pedro if Hero is Leonato’s sole heir or not, pauses, as if nervous. Previous actors, directors, and scholars have wondered if Claudio is honest or not; maybe he doesn’t love Hero and is just after her inheritable fortune. But here we see a Claudio that sees this fortune as an impediment rather than a bonus. Fyi, they also dropped his “even if she were an ethiope” line.
Frances McNamee as Ursula also deserves a mention; in the Beatrice gulling scene (3.1) she choose to overact her character’s acting, which I found really funny. (“Fear you not my part of the dialogue.”)
Okay, the quibbles: the audience laughs when Michelle Terry delivers the “kill Claudio” line. Not her fault; I think. She gives an admirable performance (playing a “protofeminist suffragette”); it felt like the audience is just conditioned now to laugh at that line. But for a better version, see Emma Thompson in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version.
They also copied Joss Whedon’s version in having the characters drinking all the time. Whedon felt this made the character’s actions more believable. Poo. In a film that got a lot of things right, it’s unfortunate that mistake is what other productions are copying.
Then finally—the quibble I often have with RSC-directed shows—there were some scenes that would have worked much better if the actors had addressed the audience, rather than each other on stage or staring blankly out into the black void of the darkened theatre. In particular, Terry chose to address the “I know you of old” line towards Benedict (in my experience, much more powerful for the audience if shared with them) and Benedict (Edward Bennett) did the “One man” speech (2.3) towards the back of the stage staring vaguely upwards trapped behind a bunch of stage furniture.
To be fair, he makes up for it later when he addresses a woman in the front row after she laughs at him as he tries to sing his poem (“The god of love,/That sits above”) for Beatrice (5.2). But it also shows what he could have done with the “one man” speech as well. (“One woman is fair, yet I am well” begs for the actor to point at someone in the audience.)
But again, I loved the play. The music is good (Nigel Hess, interviewed on the break), there were several interesting choices, and the performances were all good (Don John, in particular, does not overdo it). I don’t mind admitting that I cried several times, but also left the theatre feeling that there’s hope for us all yet.