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.
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]