Love’s Labour’s Lost: U of O Students Tackle One Of Shakespeare’s Trickiest Plays

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo. Marianne Duval.

There’s a lovely moment early in the University of Ottawa’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost when Ryan Young, in the role of an affable rustic named Costard. lopes into view and plunges into some nimble word play involving the words “manner” and “form.”

The sequence is a showy indulgence, like so much of this early Shakespearean comedy, but it leaves you in a forgiving mood. An essential requirement of the play is being met: we are getting a delightful fusion of language and character.

It happens again in the scenes involving that fantastical Spaniard, Don Adriano de Armado, portrayed with delicate affectation by an excellent Darcy Smith, and his precocious page, Moth, played with appropriate merriment by Sine Robinson. Language is again the driving force here — with the play’s penchant for elaborate and mannered speech being stretched to its extreme here — but Smith remains grounded in his character. Don Adriano may be a parody of the courtly lover, but here it’s a genuinely affectionate one

So Catriona Leger’s production does have more than its share of fine individual moments as well as some solid ensemble playing. The play is both a challenge and an opportunity for a student cast. Developing a facility with Shakespeare is of obvious value —and the only way of achieving this is to perform him. Furthermore, the central situation of Love’s Labour’s Lost is ideally suited to young players. The young King of Navarre and three of his courtiers pledge themselves to three years of rigourous study, during which time no women will be allowed in their orbit. But this vow quickly collapses when the Princess of France and members of her delectable court arrive to discuss affairs of state. Adolescent love takes over, along with adolescent hi-jinks.

It is a play of deceptions and foolery, and near the end, this production engages fully in the boisterous nonsense that sees bogus Russians cut a galumphing contrast to the stately trappings of a masque.

Until its sobering end, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a giddy celebration of youth, the work of a 30-year-old playwright revelling in the possibilities of language and, in this particular instance, its excesses. It is deliberate in its artifice, reflecting an Elizabethan delight with verbal gymnastics. But it is a delight that we often can’t share. Watching this U of O production, we can be caught up in the play’s irresistible rhythms of speech, its rolling cadences, and its sense of ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake, but we are often denied a glimpse into the language’s inner life. The play’s euphuistic embellishments can prove elusive for both audience and actor: so can those obscure reference points, so accessible to audiences of 450 years ago, so remote to us today. Shakespeare wrote this play when his excitement over the possibilities of language was further spiked by his discovery of the mannered prose, so trendy in its time, of John Lyly, and he indulged that excitement fully in Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Many scholars believe the play was originally written for private performance. And there were no further revivals recorded until the 19th Century. You could therefore say that it has had a chequered life.

John Masefield, a former British poet laureate, and a devoted admirer of Love’s Labour’s Lost, had this to say about it.

“In its deftness, richness, neatness, delicacy of quip and swiftness of retort, it seems as ingenious as cobweb, but the sun of today does not shine upon it as the sun of the great Tudor time. Then, it was a way of writing that none could neglect . . . .’

Its reputation as a “difficult” Shakespearean play is probably well deserved. It can be a severe challenge — even to the seasoned professional. And there are times when these gifted U of O performers do seem adrift on an impenetrable sea of language.

But director Catriona Leger compensates for this by ensuring adequate definition of character and by also recognizing that there are times when this play can be borne along by the very sound and cadence of the verse.

Consider the case of Jon Dickey, in the key role of Berowne, one of the gabbiest characters in the Shakespeare canon. There are times when this irrepressible young courtier seems incapable of shutting up — it’s like a verbal deluge has been let loose. And yes, there are times in performance when Dickey’s marathon speechifying is mainly reminiscent of a long-distance runner who’s desperate to reach the finish line. However, more seasoned actors than this attractive young talent have been defeated by Berowne, and there is a trade-off here. We do sense the intoxication of this Berowne over the sound of his own voice. We may not get all those witty allusions — but we know that he takes delight in uttering them. So a character is taking shape — a disarming narcissist with a bit of Doogie Hawser thrown in — and we end up believing in his merry presence and in his pursuit of Katie Macneil’s charmingly enigmatic Rosaline.

The production’s biggest problem rests with the casting of two engaging actresses, Hannah Redman and Kayla Clarke in the respective roles of Holofernes, the schoolmaster, and Sir Nathaniel, the curate. It simply doesn’t work. Clarke has a confident stage presence but there’s no way she can evoke the gruff masculine pedantry of a character who — in one memorable Stratford production — was inspired by that bearded Canadian icon, Robertson Davies. A vigourous Kayla Clarke delivers a robust characterization of Nathaniel — especially during those moments when she and Holofernes are conversing at delightful cross-purposes — but again the character she so adroitly gives us is essentially out of synch with the material. In brief, two rewarding performances, the only problem being that neither belongs in this play.

Curtis Gough enjoyably succumbs to romantic fluster as the King of Navarre, Carly Billings is saucily convincing as a carefree village gal, Trevor Osbourne gives an excellent, finely-tuned performance as that dependable factotum, Boyet, Kevin Da Ponte is sturdy as an oak as a constable named Dull, Monica Bradford-Lea brings an insinuating charm to the role of the Princess of France, and there are also worthy contributions from Emma Hickey, Julie Landriault, Franco Pang, and Cullen Petersen

This Love’s Labour’s Lost occupies a modern setting — well, sort of — with attractive costuming by Vanessa Imeson and a lovely leaf-strewn courtyard courtesy of designer John Doucet. But really, this is a world unshackled by the confines of time and place. It’s a sort of Never Land — until the Princess and those cavorting about her are dragged back into the harshness of the real world by the news of her father’s death.

Leger and her young cast manage these moments of sobering transition beautifully with tiny bits of nuance and detail. And that twilight moment at the very end, when the actors sing of summer violets yielding to icicles on the wall, carries its own reminders of mortality. And in the end, to quote E.M. Tillyard, “Shakespeare comes to rest in the norm of everyday life.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare plays at the University of Ottawa until Saturday, November 7. Show starts at 8pm .

A production of the drama Guild of the University of Ottawa.

Directed by Catriona Leger

Set by John Doucet

Costumes by Vanessa Imeson

Lighting by Margaret Coderre-Williams

Composer Julian Bertino

King of Navarre: Curtis Gough


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