During the Royal Opera House’s live cinema broadcast of Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia on 2 November 2016, a recurrent comment was made by Darcey Bussell and her fellow interval commentators regarding the Royal Ballet’s annual performance of The Nutcracker. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without it!” enthused the infectiously cheery Bussell. She’s completely correct, of course, and The Nutcracker is both a solid part of the Christmas theatre genre and a good prototype for explaining its characteristics.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s pairing of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing may not be as obviously sugar-plummed and snow-dusted as Tchaikovsky’s ballet, but in their own way they slide comfortably in among the Peter Pans and The Snowman without too much bother. They are both, at heart, about style over substance (as original Shakespeare works and in this production) and about witty exchanges as much as a substantial plot. None of which really matters especially as, if you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s comedies, arriving at one expecting real dramatic depth is like turning up at the ROH expecting multi-dimensional fighting mice.
Interestingly, there is also something balletic about director Christopher Luscombe’s staging of the plays. A deliberate choreography exists in the way the characters move in unison – particularly the Princess of France (Leah Whitaker) and her ladies in waiting. They also sit in studiously static formations suggesting a series of tableaux which echo royal family scenes in classical ballets, for example Swan Lake. Emphasising the theatricality of the staging – the fakeness and the fun that can be had with that – all contributes to why the double-bill works particularly well as a Christmas show; even through it was previously performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September this year.
Another aspect of their seasonal appeal is their embrace of an olde worlde bumptious Englishness: the same kind of sherry-soaked nostalgia that seeps into the Christmas television programming in various forms. The idea is that both plays are set either side of the First World War. Shakespeare’s Northern Spanish and Sicilian settings are swapped for a country estate based on Charlescote Park near Stratford-upon-Avon (and realised gorgeously by Simon Higlett’s stage design). Although the first of the pairing plays on the idea that ‘Britain would never be like this again’ following the trenches, it’s noticeable how much this setting resembles the cricket jumpers and teddy bears world of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which is set just before the Second World War – suggesting that in some respects the lives of the aristocracy inside oak-panelled rooms didn’t change all that much.
Alternately, if you do fully buy in to the Edwardian setting, then there’s definitely room to read Luscombe’s production as a lighter-hearted version of The Shooting Party, the 1985 film based on Isabel Colegate’s book. As with that work, the impeccably attired Upstairs folk are waited on by rural-accented Downstairsers. The guffawing in the Theatre Royal Haymarket at the country wenches (Emma Manton) and Gilbert-and-Sullivan-infused policeman (Nick Haverston) at times made the production feel uncomfortably close to being festively theatrical in the wrong way and turning into old school pantomime. It certainly hit the spot with some audience members though – a group of women two rows behind laughed possibly the hardest I have every heard anyone laugh in a theatre, and all at such comedy gold as a policeman stepping in a bucket. A killer potential audience for Bristol’s annual Slapstick Festival, perhaps.
What lifts these plays from simply sliding into kitsch is Edward Bennett’s performances as Berowne and Benedick. His enigmatic, quick-tongued delivery no doubt carries many of Shakespeare’s wonkier moments of narrative. There was also his grinning improvised recovery from inhaling a handful of ashes at the start of a monologue that charmed the audience as much as the lit-up Christmas tree in the corner of the room. His sparring with Lisa Dillon’s fantastically rude, whiskey-drinking Beatrice is a pleasure to watch.
And pleasure really is what it’s all about. Ok, this isn’t Othello, nor is it Chekhov’s First Play (although arguably for Dead Centre’s deconstructed masterpiece to make sense, you also need this type of production to exist). Christmas theatre isn’t really designed to excite theatre critics. It’s designed to facilitate an evening spent with friends – enjoying their company and exhaling at the end of the calendar year.
There’s so much cynicism at Christmastime (and Lord knows I’m one of the worst for it), especially at the end of a year people perceive as being particularly cruddy. But looked at another way it seems all the more important to embrace the idea of a seasonal breather, a reflection on the past months and an expression of hope for the next twelve. If this was what theatre was like every time I went to see it, I’d be the first to start up the protest songs, but when taken as a seasonal intermission – a romcom on Boxing Day – then it also becomes a bit like an old knitted jumper to cuddle into. It’s about, just occasionally, having a break and not feeling guilty about it. Sometimes you just need to be still for a moment, or all of Love’s labour really will be lost.
Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing (or, Love’s Labour’s Won) are on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 18th March 2017. Click here for more details.