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Staging Love’s Labour’s Lost

August 26, 2015

lll

HOLOFERNES

Via, goodman Dull! thou hast spoken no word all this while.

DULL

Nor understood none neither, sir.

Re-reading LLL, I begin to wonder if it isn’t Shakespeare’s Tristram Shandy.  There’s a love of incompletion here – a love of characters who are incapable of action and an affection for stupid erudition that lacks any practical application.  It is notable that the BBC Shakespeare series (1978-1985) included a production of LLL set (unlike any other play in the series) in the eighteenth century.

I recall an open air production in Cambridge starring Scott Handy as Don Adriano de Armado that reconciled me to the play and reminded me that the worst thing you can do to Love’s Labour’s Lost is to brutally cut it.  This was a production that reminded me that unintelligibility is extremely funny. You have to risk frustrating an audience – even risk testing their patience, because without that risk – the play ,makes no sense.

It seems to have been written for a performance at the Inns of Court and performed in front of Queen Elizabeth.  This context demonstrates that a) “clever” jokes are a good idea and b) a story in which women are cleverer than blustering men is also a good idea.

At the end of the play, the ladies (like Elizabeth) keep their witty and desperate suitors at bay.  It amuses them to be courted, but none of these witlings have really done enough to persuade them to sacrifice their sovereign independence.

However, the notion that “people got all the jokes at the time but they won’t now” is fatal to any modern attempt at staging. Once you start cutting LLL on that basis, you’ll never stop cutting.  You need to find actors who enjoy the sound of the words and who enjoy the sound of their own voices (less difficult).  The success of the play is bound up with those who try and fail to keep up and, still more, with those who try to hard to keep up and find themselves drowning.

Among those who risk drowning, brilliantly and most significantly, are those audience members who laugh too loud and too often just to demonstrate that they are clever enough to understand all the jokes.  These people are the ones who will miss the poignant moments, the descriptions of loss and disappointment – and who by trying to conquer the whole play – will find themselves mortified as surely as Berowne and company.

The play needs Costard and Dull and Jaquenetta not because the plebs are to be sneered at but because the plebs have their own version of linguistic assertion and invention that deserves stage time.

In short, like Tristram Shandy, Love’s Labour’s Lost explores the relationship between language and time and ends up with a conclusion in favour of deferral.  Jack hath not Jill.

And greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

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