Sat in the third row, there must have been an odd sense of déjà vu for the actor Hugh Bonneville as he watched this extended double bill play out across designer Simon Higlett’s outlandishly exquisite set. Modelled on Warwickshire stately home Charlecote Park, there is more than a touch of Downton Abbey about the panelled studies, vaulted chapels and manicured lawns that glide across the stage in this opulently realised paean to Edwardian privilege; a gluttonous visual feast quite befitting a seemingly insatiable cultural appetite for affluence, be it that of Bonneville’s onscreen clan or the cast of Made in Chelsea.
Beautifully done though it is, whether the RSC should be feeding this trend is another matter entirely. Is not Shakespeare thought of by many as exclusive enough without using his plays as an opportunity to show lots of mostly rich, mostly white, mostly male characters blithely cavorting? There’s also the WWI commemoration conceit to take into account, which, though fitting for Love’s Labour’s Won (a tenuous retitling of Much Ado About Nothing) – in which returning soldiers arrive back from war and promptly fall in love – is less well-handled in Love’s Labour’s Lost, where the central story of four scholars who swear off women for three years only to have their oaths sorely tested does little to suggest the looming conflict. These are problematic aspects of these productions, because though both are very finely done in many senses, there are some worrying class politics at play.
With Lost in particular, director Christopher Luscombe really does try to have his cake and eat it. Shakespeare has the climactic pageant – played out by the non-noble members of the court and surveyed by their social superiors – fall apart as the lords and ladies heckle and mock the amateur players. Here, Luscombe takes the show to the edge of collapse only to rejig the text so that the enthusiastic encouragement of the aristos saves the day. This seems to be an attempt to suggest the happy cohabitation of the served and the servile, a kind of all-in-this-together vibe that is further heightened in the production’s choral finale – stunningly lit by Oliver Fenwick – nodding as it does to the onset of the Great War. And yet we are still, earlier in the play, invited to guffaw at the disdainful introduction of a swain who lives on the estate, as a “member of the commonwealth”. Why wouldn’t we laugh? He and all the other characters that aren’t absurdly minted have such quaint – if contextually nonsensical – West Country accents!
Doubtless these concerns will be immaterial to many. With much to enjoy in the performances, there is certainly fun to be had. Edward Bennett brings a little too much high camp to his Benedick, but gives us a brilliantly bandy-legged Berowne, truly a “merry madcap lord” as he simultaneously flails and revels in the quandary of having fallen in love against his oath, and the whole cast attack the big comic set-pieces – there are farcical overhearing scenes in both plays, and a big Russian dance number in Lost – with game brio. The star performance of the pairing comes from Michelle Terry in Won, whose firecracker Beatrice is by turns movingly brittle and full of arch, sparkling chutzpah: this is a Beatrice who has never really fallen out of love with the idea of love at all, but who has built a wall around her heart that is steadily, joyously dismantled. If the wintry setting – there’s a lot of sitting around indoors – seems to work against the giddy romance of Won, Terry nevertheless does her very best to capture the heat of burgeoning passion.
In a mirror image of Lost’s final moments, Won closes with the company – silent waiting staff and all – dancing to a Coward-esque refrain. Across both plays, Luscombe seems intent on presenting us with the trappings of class structures, but suggesting a kind of utopian, classless social harmony. To do so as we continue to languish under the austerity regime of the coalition lends a vaguely bitter aftertaste; to juxtapose Higlett’s lavish set and costumes with WWI propaganda posters in the gift-shop proclaiming that “self-indulgence at this time is helping the enemy” feels like rank hypocrisy. A hardworking company make the most of these generously witty plays, and, in particular, it is no mean feat to make the infamously verbose Lost so emotionally vibrant, but one wonders whether there is more joy to be wrung from Shakespeare when money – both spent and represented – has less of a part to play.