Love's Labour's Lost, The Olivier, National Theatre, London

'Love's Labour's Lost' is largely lost in three hours of longueurs

Rhoda Koenig
Saturday 22 February 2003 01:00

Sir Trevor Nunn's decision to use much the same casts in Love's Labour's Lost and Anything Goes must have inspired interesting speculations. Would the orange-haired Sally Ann Triplett, for instance, be shaking her assets in Shakespeare's comedy as a raucous Princess of France?

In the event, nothing so radical has happened, though the frequent longueurs of this three-hour-plus production made me wish it had.

Nunn's main contribution is in the two scenes with which he has topped and tailed the decorous play. In John Gunter's stark landscape, dominated by a leafless tree, First World War doughboys flee enemy fire. One soldier falls, wounded, and a dark figure in a top hat and long coat advances to intone the line with which the play ends: "The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.''

As the play proper begins, scrims covered with blossoms descend, and the noises of friendly woodland creatures are heard.

Nominally Navarre, it is really set in that last summer of English complacency, full of cap-doffing rustics and ladies in picture hats trimmed with egret feathers. Simon Day, a rather Woodhousian king, fits into this milieu, as do John Barrowman's Dumain and Tam Mutu's Longaville, all in cream-coloured suits. The odd man out is Joseph Fiennes' Berowne. Though dressed like the others, he slouches and frowns, and his coat and shirt buttons are undone. He is so much out of kilter with the others from the start that it's hard to believe he would even consider joining them in vowing to study, fast, and forswear women.

Kate Fleetwood – who, like him, plays no part in the Cole Porter musical – stresses the one note of her own character, his eventual sweetheart, even more. Plopping on the ground, legs apart, rolling her eyes and sighing deeply, she piles on the tomboy mannerisms to the point of tiresomeness.

The scene that works best is the one in which the King and his Lords find that all of them have broken their pact. As each in turn, thinking himself alone, composes a love letter, Fiennes views the scene sardonically. His kiss-curl dancing in indignation, Day ticks off all these naughty boys.

But this tame play, with its passive women playing inconsequential tricks on their suitors, lacks the energy to fill the vast Olivier stage.

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