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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

David Tennant in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’

Please don’t consider this a review. I saw the very first preview of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. This was the very first time the company was performing the play in front of an audience, and it was obvious, at least to someone like me, with experience not just as a member of a theater audience but as a member of a theatrical production team. There was only one moment when, I think, almost anyone in the audience would have recognized that someone tripped up, when one actor of the ensemble stepped on another’s lines. Which is pretty darn amazing, actually, for a first preview, that there was only one such moment.

The other moments… Well, if you don’t know how clever actors cover up the fact that they can’t remember what words are supposed to be coming out of their mouths, you’d never have guessed that David Tennant was out there on the stage by himself, saying to himself, “Fuckin’ hell, what’s my next line?” with no one to prompt him and no one to help him out. The word midget does not appear in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, only in the one that Tennant was performing that night. (In fact, my dictionary tells me the word was not coined till two centuries after the Bard’s death.) But it was charming, really, to learn that Tennant really is as intelligent and creative as I imagined he was, that he could extemporize Shakespearean-sounding language even while he was panicking, going round in gloriously absurd nonsense till he remembered his appointed dialogue. It all worked just fine, of course, because this play is all about satirizing the overblown babble deployed in the cause of romance. The adorably chagrined little grin he had for himself was just a bonus I was able to witness from eight rows back.

The other other moments were clearly a function of the cast not appreciating how gut-wrenchingly funny their production is: it was clear, to me at least, that they weren’t quite sure how long to ride out the raucous laughter howling out from the crowd, and sometimes some of their lines got lost in the noise. I cannot remember the last time I laughed so hard at anything: I was in pain, and in tears, with mirth. Anyone who says they don’t like Shakespeare can simply have never seen a decent production of it, because you don’t need to have a degree in 17th-century English literature to understand Shakespeare, when his plays are done right, as this one is. When a cast is as full of life and passion as this one is, you grasp the sense even if you don’t catch the meaning of every single line of verse. And Love’s Labour’s Lost may be silly, ultimately, but it is splendidly silly, bursting with a profound awareness of, nay, a marveling of the goofy things we do for love. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving the theater after this seeing production not desperate to be madly in love, no matter how affectionate the smackdown Shakespeare has doled out to lovers.

So: not a review. It is virtually guaranteed that some aspects of the production — which had its press night on Wednesday, after five previews and, one must assume, at least a few more rehearsals — have changed in the interim. And yet, I’m glad I saw the show at that not-quite-finished stage: it highlighted how ephemeral theater is, how much a living thing it is. I’d love the chance to see the show again, in its more finished form, but I’m not sorry I saw that first preview.

Theater is about surprise: You turn up to see a famous name, and a not-famous one floors you. Joe Dixon as the bombastic Don Adriano de Armado, in love with the wench Jaquenetta, completely steals the show. (I mentioned this before.) After the first appearance or two of the Don, every time he made an entrance after that, there was a palpable frisson that shuddered through the audience, as if you could feel everyone thinking, Heh heh, this is gonna be good; he is gonna be a riot, again. And he was, every time. (That Dixon was an absolute doll when we met him in the pub the next night was just a bonus.) That’s that immediacy of theater — that’s that ephemeralness that no other media can replicate. Theater is an interaction between audience and performers. It was amazing to see Tennant take advantage of that, directly addressing members of the audience for an effect that was comic not only because it played off of Shakespeare’s snarkiness — this is a very, very snarky play, and plugs into an attitude that feels very, very modern — but because it played off Tennant’s fame. And yet that will be different with every performance. Yeah, there will probably always be a pretty girl in the front row he can wink at, and there will probably always been a guy with his arms folded in affected boredom he can tweak… but maybe not. Maybe there will be some other reason he can pick on someone within the context of Shakespeare’s language.

Yes, this production is very sexy — Jaquenetta (Riann Steel) with her butter churn that turns almost pornographic is hilarious — but it’s that modern-feeling snark that makes this production feel so fresh. The men are romantic idiots; the women are cool and rational — that couldn’t possibly feel more 21st century. When Oliver Ford Davies’ Holofernes complains that the boys are “not generous” in their teasing of his performance during the pageant of the Nine Worthies, it feels like a bitter takedown of our entire culture of snark. Yeah, Holofernes deserves it, but… maybe it is not very nice. Maybe we should rethink that.


more pix here

I attended the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Gregory Doran, on Thursday, October 2, 2008, at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. See the RSC’s site for more information on the production.

[part of my “summer of David Tennant and ‘Hamlet’” series]

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  • Magess

    *longing sigh*


  • Sara

    OH! I am so envious of you! To see both Hamlet and Love’s Labor’s Lost must have been the best! I saw the last preview of Hamlet and I was blown away, I assume it could have only gotten better. I wish I could have seen Love’s Labor’s Lost too!

  • Kathy A

    Joining in the jealousy corner!!

    Theater is about surprise: You turn up to see a famous name, and a not-famous one floors you.

    This is so true. I remember going to see the revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” when it was in pre-Broadway tryouts out here in Chicago ten years ago. The main reason I went was because Anthony Rapp and BD Wong were in it (playing Charlie Brown and Linus, respectively), but the two performances that jumped off that stage were Roger Bart as Snoopy and Kristin Chenoweth as Sally. Nobody had ever heard of either of them (well, other than Bart being the singing voice of Aladdin in the Disney flick), but afterwards, they were the two everyone was talking about in the lobby.

  • Magess

    I didn’t know David Tennant was Scottish until about 30 seconds ago. (last person in the world to know this, I imagine)

    And now I’m even more charmed, which I didn’t think could be possible.

  • Bo

    I have enjoyed reading about your adventures in Shakespeare-land and in seeing the marvelous Mr. Tennant. I am leaving in just a few days to enjoy the same thing…so I guess you could say that I am really “Fall-ing” for Shakespeare this year (yes, DT helps tremendously, but I love the Bard and always have…). Thanks for your insight and commentary….I am looking even more forward to my trip and the chance to see both plays now (and even seeing “Hamlet” twice – once for enjoyment and once for educational purposes – and okay, yes, enjoyment again). Even though I am sure he will have the lines down pat by the time I see it on the 23rd, I can still know, from both your comments and from acting experience I have, anything can happen when it is all live….Thanks again for all the great writing. Also, I am in dire need of a huge belly laugh, so that is an additional enticement (LOL – getting into practice now.)

  • MaryAnn

    I didn’t know David Tennant was Scottish until about 30 seconds ago.

    I can’t believe I forgot to mention that he does use his Scottish accent in this production. Chalk that up to the fact that this really is an ensemble in which he does not dominate, as wonderful as he is in it.

  • Poly in London

    MaryAnn wrote “Chalk that up to the fact that this really is an ensemble in which he does not dominate, as wonderful as he is in it.”
    I was very pleased that at curtain call, they were all together, and at the second curtain call David Tennant moved at the back, was behind and among everyone else. RSC’s philosophy, especially right now, is that it is an ensemble company and everyone embraces this. It’s even obvious in Hamlet, the ultimate star vehicle. It adds to the quality of the work and the audience’s enjoyment.

  • MaryAnn

    As I wrote in another post, I think that if the company was allowed individual bows, Joe Dixon would have gotten rowdier applause than Tennant would have. I’m glad, though, that the RSC sticks to the ensemble attitude: I like that there are no stars here.

  • Lisa

    I just returned home today after an unforgettable weekend in Stratford-Upon-Avon! I had tickets for 3 performances of Love’s Labour’s Lost and ended up getting returns for a total of 5 shows!

    You hit the nail on the head when you said it is absolutely hilarious, and definitely an ensemble cast! Costard is another character who really shines in this production, and I loved the little rap that Greg Doran incorporated into the show involving Don Armado, Costard, and Moth. BIG fun for all watching!

    And as you said, David does this one in his natural accent which is just heavenly!

    I can’t recommend this play highly enough! Try for returns, folks, because I quite literally walked off the street and got mine! Don’t give up. It’s worth it!

    Thanks for the review, MaryAnn!

  • oh yes, Costard was hilarious — also seemed to be a very nice man when we met him in the street and complimented him on his performance. joe dixon though… he has *it* in spades and was just so wonderful as Don Amato. i am seething with jealousy that you managed to score tickets for 3 performances. i suppose we could have spent an afternoon waiting in the lobby for returned tickets… but we chose to spend it in the pub… oh well. next time.

  • Tom S.

    Just a minor nitpick to Kathy A — Brad Kane did the singing voice for Aladdin. He was in high school with me; I remember how unfair we all thought it was that he lost the speaking part.

    Roger Bart did Hercules a few years later.

  • bluestationwagon

    When I compare live theatre to movies, I use the analogy that live plays are like cut flowers (exquisite, unique, and never seen exactly like that again), while movies are like plastic plants (some well done, longer lasting, but less unique). I’m glad you’re having a great time and generously sharing it with those of us who can’t go there.

  • bats :[

    Well, um, let’s see. I won’t be jealous about your seeing LLL, I swear. I just saw the University of Arizona’s Rep Theatre’s second preview performance of LLL on Monday night, and the “kids” (this is a training program for students who aspire to be professionals in the theater) did fabulous. Maybe not RSC fabulous, but fabulous nonetheless.

    I was surprised how short the production was — less than two hours, if you count the intermission. I also noticed that the Branaugh version clocks in at 94 minutes. Is it really that short a play? Just wondering…

  • bats :[

    Oh, yeah, UA’s Don Armado also stole the show. There’s nothing quite like a pompous little twit strutting across the stage with a swim cap, shower clogs, and a black Speedo with a charging bull stitched across the butt…

  • MaryAnn

    The RSC’s LLL was about 3 hours long, including a 20-minute intermission.

  • heather

    Ooooh, I am jealous. I was in Stratford this weekend as well (did you find the fair everywhere as annoying as we did?)

    Some of the group had tickets for the same LLL as you did, and came back raving. Made me wish I’d got tickets for that as well.

    Still, Hamlet was pretty fab!

  • MaryAnn

    The fair? There was no fair when I was there…

  • what faire? there was a market a few days a week, but it was interesting for its variety.

    i would love to see both Hamlet *and* LLL again, just to see the differences in a more practised ensemble performance in LLL and to see if Hamlet varies at all on any given night.

  • Claire Malia

    Went to see LLL the day after press night and from the sounds of it much improved was very smooth and spoke to Sam Alexander (Dumaine) later that night and he was saying it was the best performance yet and felt comfortable. Had me in stitches ad thought it was wonderful. Been loving your blogs. CM

  • heather

    There was the ‘MOP’ fair (I have no idea what that stood for) on Friday the 10th and Sat 11th. Lots of really noisy rides and stalls, blocking off most of the stuff round by the American fountain and the surrounding roads. Made navigating tricky, as everything looked the same!

    I may have misunderstood when you went…

    Wish I’d got to see LLL as well, but Hamlet was fab, the weather was lovely, Stratford was pretty once the fair had gone, and the food at the Dirty Duck was marvellous…

  • Gee

    I found this blog via Google Alerts for LLL and have had a lot of fun browsing the entries. I was also at the first preview night and thought it was hugely, hugely enjoyable! I did see DTs little grin to himself (I think he was looking down at the time) so it was great to learn the reason for it, as I did wonder.

    Trusting to this director and ensemble’s clarity (after having seen both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and because of running out of time, I didn’t do any homework beforehand, but it wasn’t necessary to appreciate this production. I’m going to see it again next week, and this time will do some prior reading understand some of the more obscure jokes and wordplay.

    The Mop Fair is an old tradition in Stratford, dating from the 1300’s (Edward III).


  • heather

    Ahhh, It’s almost as long running as the Goosefair in Nottingham (which would have been the previous week, and I bet there were some of the same rides at both).

    I was being a doofus, Mary-ann, and misunderstood when you’d been to see it. Blame it on a mad week that saw me doing an insane amount of travelling (Edinburgh-Newark-Stratford-Liverpool-Harrogate-Edinburgh). My mind was mush…

  • MaSch

    “The men are romantic idiots; the women are cool and rational – that couldn’t possibly feel more 21st century.”

    Hmm, IRL maybe, but in the movies, especially in romantic comedies? Most romantic heroines seem to be wearing an invisible t-shirt with the slogan “neurotic and proud of it” printed on it.

  • MaryAnn

    Yeah, not in the movies. Or haven’t you noticed me railing against romantic comedies for the last 11 years?

  • MaSch

    I did notice you railing, how could I not. I only wanted to point out that this scenario rather goes against the current cultural zeitgeist IMO.

  • MaryAnn

    But it’s not a “scenario” — it’s the reality that movies almost always get wrong, for reasons I cannot imagine, except that that movies are being made by people with their heads more in the clouds than even most people in Hollywood.

  • MaSch

    Then not “scenario” but “situation” (but this also is not quite accurately what I mean; sucks not to be a native writer). Do you think that people in 200 years would think “oh, that sounds *so* like some movie from the beginning of the 21st century” when a romantic comedy is described as having “men that are romantic fools while the women are cool and rational”?

    Now, I’ve written movie, but it is a play. While I don’t know about romantic comedy on stage in the Anglo-Saxon world, I know the sorry state of middle-brow art on German stages, and I doubt that style or content changed in the last 25 years.

    I’m not arguing, I’m trying to get my point through translation.

  • MaryAnn

    I guess I don’t understand what you’re saying.

    What I’m saying is that a 400-year-old play feels more modern than most of the romantic comedies made this year.

  • MaSch

    Not only not being a native speaker, neither am I a native reader, your statement in the not-review sounded to me like “this 400-year-old play feels every bit as modern as any romantic comedy made this year”.
    Is that interpretation really totally off the mark? And was the latter figure of speech correct?

  • MaryAnn

    Yes, it really is totally off the mark. Where did I liken any of this to movies?

  • MaSch

    I would say you made a jump from 16th century fiction to 21st century “non-fiction”. I assumed you stayed in “fiction”, or rather in “popular fiction performed by actors”.

    Well, reading what I assumed, it is a bigger assumption than I thought it was at the time.

  • Susan

    Saw LLL on Friday and it was wonderful. I really hadn’t realised how funny Shakespeare could be. Took my 17 year old daughter with me and she was enthralled too (and unlike her mother she’s not a David Tennant fan). The performance was followed by an “Ask the Cast” session. It was fascinating to hear some of their thoughts on the play. A birthday I won’t forget.

  • Gee

    Susan – don’t stop there! What did they say?

    I’m not sure about the tights but I do think doublets (without the ruffs) look good on men of all shapes and sizes. It is a shame that dark business suits have predominated for the last century or so, with the casual alternative being jeans and a T-shirt or sweatshirt. Bring back colour and the buccaneering spirit!!

  • Weimlady

    Someone who was there for the “Ask the Cast” posted on the David Tennant Fan Forum. She said the staff were hustling around, begging cast members to come back for it because they only had a few who were staying. David’s father was visiting–and yet, when he learned they were short of cast members, he came back to do the “Ask the Cast.”

    What a guy.

  • Susan

    Yes, when the first cast members came out – about half a dozen – we were told that David probably wouldn’t be coming because his father had come to see the performance. So it was particularly generous of him to give up his time.

    Had I been efficient I would have taken notes! However, one of the things that came across was how much the cast enjoyed working together. Several of them had been together for the three plays and clearly there was an excellent rapport. Regarding LLL much was made of the fact that it plays better than it reads and Oliver Ford Davies (Holofernes) did comment that for the first four minutes of his part the audience didn’t have a clue either what he was talking about or what relevance it had to the rest of the play – nice to know I wasn’t alone there then!

    And David Tennant was asked how he managed to throw his hat into the tree and having initially claimed it was natural talent admitted that it was only the second time he’d managed to do it.

  • Poly in London

    I was at the post show talk and the most striking thing is the ensemble feeling of the company, something not easily achieved when one actor is known and loved by millions and other actors don’t even have lines in the play. Everyone contributed with the same enthusiasm and the same feeling of ownership for the production. And if you didn’t already know, you ‘d never guess that David Tennant was the famous name. He seems like the most unstarry unaffected person, not in the sense of being shy or retiring (he isn’t), but he has a way of taking away that feeling of “oh my god, it’s so and so”. He came after the talk had started (as many other actors did), he sat on the floor (they had run out of chairs by that point) and his pleasure of being there as part of the company was obvious. Huge credit to him, but also the rest of the cast and the RSC as an organisation, they know what counts.

  • Susan

    Thanks Poly for putting into words what I felt but couldn’t think how to express.

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