THEATRE / Caught up in a thicket of words: Jeffrey Wainwright on James Macdonald's production of Love's Labour's Lost

Click to follow
'A Jest's prosperity,' Rosaline tells Berowne, 'lies in the ear/Of him that hears it, never in the tongue/ Of him that makes it'. The waggish self-regard which characterises too much comic performance suggests that Rosaline's words are not too often pondered now. James Macdonald's version of Love's Labour's Lost at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, follows the precept faithfully: it is the audience that is served by every aspect of this production.

Here is a detail. Constable Dull must be on-stage for long periods without speaking or being involved in the action. Rather than invent bits of business and shuttle him around the sightlines, Macdonald's simple solution is to have Dull snooze the scenes away on the green turf. The action is exactly in character, and when at last Andy Greenhalgh re-focuses his imperturbably opaque countenance upon the world, and is noticed not to have said one word, his matter-of-fact 'Not understood none neither' brings the biggest laugh of a generously funny evening.

Of course Dull's response find such a a ready reaction because what Don Armado calls the 'sweet smoke of rhetoric' is not as readily dissipated as the May morning mist that hangs over Kandis Cook's simple parkland set. The King of Navarre fancies himself an austere scholar who with his gentlemen can swear himself to three years' seclusion from the company of women. Such ambition calls for high tones, and the ingenuity of the sceptical Berowne in attempting to argue ways out of their solemn oaths involves yet more elaborate eloquence. In the sub-plot Don Armado and his page, and the schoolmaster Holofernes with his pernickity obsessions with every aspect of grammar, pronunciation and literary reference, complement the satire upon literary excess, and partake in the play's preoccupation with language and what it might represent.

Yet the satire is not pursued into an unintelligibility which is then exploited for cheap laughs. Bernard Bresslaw's Don Armado lingers lovingly not only over Jaquenetta but such words as 'festinately' - a little pleasure in itself, and we can work out it means 'quickly'. Because David Ross as Holfernes, and Roger Delves- Broughton as his whinnying sycophant Sir Nathaniel, are understandable, they are the more human, and their humiliation in the pageant at the end the more unwontedly cruel.

The amusement of the King and his friends at their discomfiture comes of the callow laddishness that is always visible despite their verbal intelligence. Further, in Linus Roache's scintillating portrayal of Berowne we can see that the rhetoric is part of the callowness, a kind of masturbatory foreplay anticipating an unopposed lunge at the ladies. But these ladies can sidestep. Suzan Sylvester as Rosaline has a jet-like sparkle to match Roache's sallies and Patricia Kerrigan's Princess is knowingly undeceived. That 'Jack hath not his Jill' at the end is not only a result of the surprise denouement, but because these men still have lessons to learn about speaking and listening. This unusal ending, with Mark Vibrans' fine setting of the song and Ace McCarron's lighting, is beautifully managed - a fine conclusion to an intelligent and exhilarating production.

Until 17 Oct (061-833 9833)