There have been dire attempts recently to update Love's Labour's Lost, a play which is, in some respects, Shakespeare's most Elizabethan comedy. On screen, Kenneth Branagh tried to present it as 1930s musical comedy, with less than effervescent results. On stage, English Touring Theatre transferred the piece to a corporate skyscraper in Canary Wharf and paid the full dismal price of that lunacy.
Now, though, Michael Kahn and the Washington-based Shakespeare Theatre Company have had the inspired idea of locating the comedy in India in the second half of the 1960s. It's a delectably funny interpretation, influenced by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the celebrities who flocked to his meditation courses.
Shakespeare's three young lords become members of a rock band who, seeking spiritual betterment, are involved with a local royal who's sworn them to celibacy and shunning female society for three years. Unlike the Maharishi (who, as Mia Farrow found, was liable to descend from the spiritual plane if women were around), the King is neither a fraud nor older than the others, but he is as self-deceived about his ability to remain rarefied as the rock stars are.
The combination of sincerity and posturing is beautifully pointed up by the setting, while the young men's poetic efforts translate naturally into pop songs. In the scene where each declares his love, mistakenly thinking himself alone, there's a wonderfully charming, funny sequence where, quite unconscious of one another, they join forces as a band in an up-tempo romantic number.
Kahn and company create all kinds of fertile correspondences. The Princess and her ladies arrive on their diplomatic mission astride Vespas as Charlie's Angels types, this spoof of female empowerment drolly underlining the superior shrewdness of the women.
There are hilarious cameos (from Geraint Wyn Davies as a preposterous Dali-moustached Don Armado, and Ted van Griethuysen, like a barmy cross between Harold Bloom and Sir Les Patterson as the pedantic schoolmaster Holofernes). The fast-paced production, visiting the Complete Works Festival, manages the transition to chastened sobriety with true emotional depth. A joy.
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