Review: Exeter University’s Shakespeare Company’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Love’s Labour’s Lost, a poetic story of four couples, is a rarely performed gem by Shakespeare. I especially have a soft spot for the character of Berwone whose romantic iambic pentameter burrowed their way into my heart quite a few years ago. This production was able to adapt the story successfully by keeping the central point relevant, and making the humour and wit punchy.

The plot concerns the king of Navarre (charismatically played by Tom Joshi-Cale) and his three knights who take a vow of chastity and fasting for three years to pursue their studies. Their intention to see no women is quickly quashed when the Princess of France (Nikki Palmer) arrives with a coincidentally appropriate number of three ladies in her service, and the bumbling, energetic servant and messenger Boyet (Jack Birtles). The four couples quickly fall madly in love and the plot thickens with swapped letters and tokens of affection, masks and ridiculous Russian disguises, all to play tricks and prove their love. As you can imagine, hilarity ensues.

This adaptation, directed by Eleanor-Rose Gordon, moves the location of the story to a 90s arcade. The Exeter Arcade was a well-suited setting for this production, and the packed audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The production heavily leans on the rise in nostalgia for a 90s aesthetic, including a plethora of denim outfits, butterfly clips and geeky jumpers galore. Gordon successfully transforms the knights’ emphasis on their studies into a ‘boys club’ with a serious dedication to gaming and a ‘no girls rule’.  Good props and timing tied it all together nicely.  I enjoyed the use of present-day ad-libs and occasional improvised moments. The production necessarily adapted elements of the text for its new setting, while keeping most of the language intact. The strict rhythm and timing are imperative to Love’s Labour’s Lost and this production didn’t fail to deliver. I also applaud the queer elements of the production, like changing the male character of Longaville to a female knight Lavilla (India Dillon). 

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In particular, the letter-reading scene in the second half was immensely enjoyable. Ellie Cheevers’ Rosaline was great, quick witted and sharp with her delivery, and Arthur O’Kelly as Dumaine was lovably dorky. Berowne is a tricky character as a likeable, chatty nerd turned poet, but Matthew Geddes was mostly successful in his characterisation. Good diction and, on the whole, good energy and delivery made for an enjoyable evening. The text also offers a chance for a great comedy role in Buyet, and Birtles delivers, though I fear for his heart if he keeps up the consumption of Red Bull at this rate.

I was a bit confused with the edits to the script. It made sense that Gordon only kept the scenes with the four couples and a messenger as it focused the narrative. However, the balance between the first and second part was unusual, as the first part was heavily cut, running for roughly 30-minutes and, following a 15-minute interval, the second half ran at just over an hour. The break happened just as the energy built up, and the longer second half dragged a little, meaning it lost some of its focus. While cuts to the script were needed to make it a more appropriate overall length, the narrative would be better paced if the interval came at more of a mid-point.

It is a good choice to perform Love’s Labour’s Lost, as it has a good split of substantial roles. The plot relies heavily on comedy, both physical and through wit, and there are a few drastic shifts in tone, but most of this was delivered well, serving the text and the production. Congratulations to the cast and crew, and everyone involved in putting this production together. Make sure you catch the performances tonight and over the weekend.

Josip Martinčić

Love’s Labour’s Lost continues to be performed at Exeter Arcade on Friday 6 at 19:30, and Sunday 8 at 16:00 and 19:30. 

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