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“HOLOFERNES: …Goodman Dull – Thou hast spoken no word all this while. DULL Nor understood none neither, sir.” The 1985 BBC “Love’s Labour’s Lost

October 15, 2017


Elijah Moshinsky is certainly a very painterly director.   Other Moshinsky dramas in this series are defined by seventeenth-century Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, but with Love’s Labours Lost Moshinsky takes a very bold leap into the first half of the eighteenth century and his artistic inspiration is Watteau.  A play that is all about combative and esoteric wit is staged in a golden age of witty banter.  Moshinsky retains his habitual love of fabric and the play of light upon fabric.  Indeed, many of the scenes involving the ladies of France involve all the women jumbled up together in a great heap of delightfully expensive fabric.

This is the only play in the series that is very precisely and specifically located in a historical era long after Shakespeare’s death, using costumes, sets and props that Shakespeare himself could not have recognised.  There are a few difficulties here.  The text refers to Don Armado having a moustache – and so this Armado becomes the only eighteenth-century aristocrat in Europe to still have a moustache.  Holofernes and Dull are given full bottomed wigs that seem to elevate them from their petty and parochial offices and make them look like heavyweight judicial and academic figures.

More seriously, and more strangely, Moth is played by a middle aged man (John Kane) despite endless and repeated references to the character being a small boy.

Love’s Labours Lost is the most one-sided battle of the sexes in the Shakespearean canon.  Girls rule.  The play ends with the harsh surrender terms being dictated.  Women never put a foot wrong and men never put a foot right.  Indeed, much of the play is about the amusing and versatile idiocy of the whole “bros before hos” (I hate even typing this phrase) mentality.  The play is also about hubris of the intellect and about the nonsensical aspiration of transcending the body.  In its own way it’s a profoundly anti-Cartesian play – it’s an organic-materialist play – and this alone vindicates the Augustan setting of this production.  The (male)  characters of this staging have (unlike Shakespeare) read Descartes – when they should have been reading Spinoza and Toland.  Slowly and painfully, they learn to admit the flesh and to see flesh and spirit as part of a continuum.

The most accomplished idiot in Navarre is Berowne, played with some sardonic jaggedness by Mike Gwilym.  As the acknowledged leader of the pack (titles be damned!), he will, twelve months after the curtain call, be rewarded with Rosaline – as played by Jenny Agutter.   I am sorry for the generation(s) that did not grow up yearning for Jenny Agutter.  They are wretches to be pitied.  Twelve months being Robin Williams in a leper hospital is a small price to pay for a lifetime with Jenny Agutter.

Rank has its obligations as well as its privileges.  Maureen Lipman, who is as deliciously arch and teasing as you’d expect as the Princess of France will be stuck with Jonathan Kent’s rather cloddish King of Navarre.  She will be marrying beneath her.

Frank Williams, most famous as the querulous vicar in Dad’s Army, plays the bewildered Dull, at the receiving end of a tour de force John Bird performance as Holofernes.  John Bird has played versions of Holofernes on countless occasions, and the flawless confidence of his erudite pomposity is a joy to watch.  His Holofernes is almost detachable from the rest of the play – a party piece inserted into an ensemble drama.  Oddly enough, this does not matter since Holofernes – the character as written – is himself barely cognizant of what’s going around him.

The star performance is, however, from that very remarkable actor David Warner as Armado.  Warner has always had an other worldly quality to him, which is why Peter Davison astutely suggested him as a possible Doctor Who.  His Armado is a posturing idiot to be sure, but a posturing idiot with a rich and romantic inner life.  Armado is more in love, and more capable of love, than Berowne and the pack.  His is a love, furthermore, which is actually consummated.

Warner’s yearning Armado is far from his homeland and profoundly displaced.  He is clearly an aristocrat yet he hangs out with the help.  And in eighteenth-century dress I am reminded of Pamela by Samuel Richardson.  Armado’s love transcends and transgresses class barriers.

All in all, this anachronistic eighteenth-century staging reminds me of the very great French film Ridicule (dir, Lacomte, 1996), which co-starred Jean Rochefort who died last week.  Ridicule explains how in order to lobby to drain a swamp and save human lives, you need to deliver the perfect witticism at the right salon.   Love’s Labours Lost also reminds us that amid all the competitive erudite idiocy, the fate of nations are in play and that the Princess of France represents the state interests of a global superpower.  Lives are at stake.  Masks, witticisms, put downs, and ludicrous Russian accents all impact upon the peace of Europe.  The toffs titter – the serfs suffer.

Final nagging note – I’m not sure the wonderful winter poem with its description of Greasy Joan keeling the pot survives when delivered as a trilly bit of Italianate recitative.  I’m not sure.  Really not sure.


I have a few thoughts about some other plays in the 1978-1985 BBC Shakespeare series…

Romeo and Juliet:

The Scottish One:

Much Ado About Nothing:

King Lear:

Here is Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Here’s Julius Caesar:

King John:

Here’s Richard II:

The BBC Richard III could not be more unlike the BBC Richard II…

Here is Henry VI Part III

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

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