What should be, in the words of Harold Bloom, “a great feast of languages” fast becomes a table of scraps. And what a disappointment it is, as it’s London’s Globe Theatre that takes the stage at Cal Performances' Zellerbach Hall for a brief, five-day run of Love’s Labour’s Lost before continuing its North American tour in California, Massachusetts and New York through December 21. This is the third time the Globe Theatre has toured in North America, bringing acclaimed productions of Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure in 2003 and 2005, respectively. This time ’round, the players, under the direction of Dominic Dromgoole, offer up an aesthetically gorgeous production of Love's Labour's, and while the creative team gives us an Elizabethan-dream, to put it plainly, “We can’t hear what you’re saying!”
And that’s so important. Shakespeare had so much fun with language in this relatively early high comedy, thought to be written in 1594 with an edit by Shakespeare in 1598. Shakespeare tests the limits of language and surpasses our expectations, whether a castrating volley by the princess and her ladies in waiting, the quixotic flamboyance of Don Armado, or one of Berowne’s famous monologues that simultaneously provokes and delights. On this stage, the actors speak too quickly, too quietly, too indirectly and with too much accent. Then Dromgoole proceeds to cover it all up with over the top antics and slapstick. It’s fun to look at something pretty for a time, but almost three hours time and this Love’s Labour’s is lost in translation.
Jonathan Fensom’s set and costume design are positively decadent. Elizabethan gowns give the impression that the ladies are floating across the stage; the academes wear scholarly robes or capes, drapes and ruffled collars, and Don Armado’s musketeer hats come complete with ostentatious plumes, although the panache in his hats far outweighs his panache with language. Set design is simple yet thoughtful, offering a Ptolemaic heaven above earthly trees growing on panels stage left and right in this seeming Garden of Eden. Just below the heavens is a balcony on which musicians on bagpipe, recorder, viol, horn and percussion create a lyrical opera of sorts. Claire van Kampen’s compositions are fun and entertaining, and work to introduce, accompany, and gibe the actors and action on the stage.
Sadly, Berowne's wit and arrogance are lost when we are unable to keep up with Trystan Gravelle’s rapid speech. Tom Stuart as Boyet, the lord who attends the princess, speaks clearly enough but stands too much on point, leading one to zone out in the midst of his monotonous monologue of rhyming couplets. Michelle Terry as the Princess of France is absurdly extreme to the point that I truly expected her to start screaming “Off with their heads!” after whipping a flamingo out of her dress. The endearing Don Armado is outdone when Paul Ready overdoes his Spanish accent. I know part of Don Armado’s charm is that he’s difficult to understand, but he should not be altogether incomprehensible.
Fergal McElherron as Costard is a saving grace. This rustic clown gives us slapstick and bawdy humor, and defines his name well. “Costard” means “apple,” which metaphorically means “a man’s head.” Yes, I mean that head. McElherron’s depiction of Costard is part Soupy Sales and part Benny Hill. And while Costard is led by his libido, McElherron’s depiction is utterly and understandably brilliant.
And now I must jump to the end, as so much in the middle is just sort of forgotten for lack of language. There are some memorable moments, such as the life-sized manually animated deer that prance through the audience before offering metaphorical foreshadow when these harts are slaughtered during the hunt. Thomasin Rand as Rosalind is sharp and full of spunk as Berowne’s love interest and foil, although it’s tough to give credence to her fight when this play’s Berowne is so forgettable. But these memorable moments are episodic and punctual. Looking around the theatre before intermission, people slept. During intermission, people left. After intermission, people read their programs. Not good.
The final scene of the play should be a smorgasbord of excitement, between the rude antics of the would be lovers and the ridiculous play within the play put on by a troupe of amateurs. Dromgoole goes for something over the top, turning the smorgasbord into a slapstick food fight, and as our excitement turned sour long ago, frankly we’re just bored with the absurdity. That’s not a good thing considering this final scene adds up to almost a third of the play’s text. What’s lost in this production is eloquence—a labour of language—lost for the sake of in your face slapstick—a shtick that should have been left to Costard. Also lost is any sort of authentic pathos for any of these characters living in this Mad Hatter’s world. It’s Berowne’s final words that sum up this production best: “That’s too long for a play.”
Love’s Labour’s Lost runs November 4 - 8 at Cal Performances' Zellerbach Hall, 101 Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720. Information can be found at http://www.calperfs.berkeley.edu/, or for information on the continuing tour, visit http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/theatre/annualtheatreseason/loveslabourslost/.