Guildford lies forty minutes by train southwest of London, where it is blessed with a vibrant acting scene and expansive castle grounds. The Guildford Shakespeare Company, now in its fifth season, makes use of the outdoor space to stage their summer production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The natural setting works well—a product of the company’s emphasis on ‘site-specific’ theatre. For instance, when the King of Navarre (Matt Pinches) says, ‘Sweet leaves, shade folly!’ he has only to motion to the towering leafy tree covering the audience to make his point. Picnicking and picturesque scenery, combined with the long-lingering summer solstice, makes for a pleasant evening of light entertainment.
This production plays on a 1940s French theme. As director Simon Usher explains in the program notes, the choice to provide a design with a 1940s flavor was born out of a desire to meld ‘a sense of formality’ with the ‘possibility for more relaxed and abandoned behaviour’. This sense of place is helped, even if unconsciously, by the (real-life) boules court behind the stage, complete with elderly couples having a go at the game. The era most shines through in the costuming (by production designer Amy Cook) in which the men are appropriately suited and the women wear hats, gloves, and post-war dresses, tasteful and elegant. A gazebo (entered into somewhat awkwardly by two ladders) stuffed full of books, lights, and a French flag completes the set. The staging makes use of the large open space, which expands lengthwise (though it is quite shallow), allowing for dialogue across a long distance. (One quibble: the audience is seated in chairs on a downward angle, with the stage at the bottom of the slope. While this arrangement allows for a good view of the characters as they run off into the distance—as they frequently do since costume changing locations are quite far afield—action which occurs near center stage, especially when the actors are seated, cannot easily be seen by audience members in the middle/back rows.)
Through a combination of cutting and strong verse speaking, this production turns what can often be one of Shakespeare’s less linguistically accessible plays into a lucid and coherent dramatic presentation. The text is helped by humorous turns from the company’s joint artistic directors, Pinches (King of Navarre/Holofernes) and Sarah Gobran (Princess of France). The two show a fully-developed sense of the relationship between their respective characters, with Gobran playing the Princess as knowing and a bit acerbic, making full use of impeccably pursed lips. As the simpering, affected Holofernes, Pinches delivers a winning comic performance, nailing Holofernes’s utter pretentiousness as a trousers-in-socks-wearing, Latin-quoting fop (no offense to those who actually speak Latin). As for the rest of the cast: the company enlists eight actors to fill a total of sixteen parts, resulting in the doubling of several parts, and, in the case of Rikki Chamberlain, the tripling of parts (Boyet, Don Armado, Sir Nathaniel—Chamberlain is at his best as the strangely endearing Don Armado).
Stephen Darcy as Berowne is at his best during the play’s serious ending, after the Princess has learned her father, the King of France, has died. Darcy’s intense manner fits the suddenly somber mood. The actress working opposite Darcy’s Berowne, Annie Hemingway, shows great skill as Rosaline, elegantly moving about as she banters with Berowne.
The opportunity to engage in ‘pleasant game[s]’ comes crashing down at the end, of course—the announcement of the King of France’s death throws a damp cloth on the (shortened) presentation of the Nine Worthies. In the aftermath, the ladies in the Guildford production reveal the extent of their toying with the men’s hearts. Any true attachment is superficial: in this battle of the sexes, the women manage to keep their hearts intact, leaving the men to suffer under their new oaths to live as hermits for a year, though there is much doubt about their ability to keep such oaths given the rapidity with which their original oaths were cast aside. It is a bittersweet ending to a more serious production of Shakespeare’s early comedy.
Love’s Labour’s Lost runs June 17 – July 3, 2010 at the Guildford Castle Grounds, Castle Street, Guildford, GU1 3UQ. Information can be found at http://www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk/index.html.