His Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket
This is part of a long-running double act put on by the RSC (originally – then coming to London via Chichester) alongside Much Ado About Nothing, the setting of the two plays bracketing the First World War.
First I need a small disclaimer – which is that I’m afraid I missed the first fifteen minutes. This is literally the first time I have been late for a play and it was frustrating to arrive in the theatre, literally out of breath from running up Haymarket, to find that the place we were being held did not have an audible feed from the stage. No matter – there will doubtless be a future blog post on theatre etiquette through the ages, and it feels as though the entire plot of the play can be summed up thusly: four men swear off women, and coincidentally four women arrive to put their vows to the test.
Within these limits lies a frothy, fun play. The Edwardian setting was perfect for showing off its carefree spirit (no problematic sub-plots involving slut-shaming or filial jealousy) – the country house and Dumain’s teddy bear were oh-so-Brideshead, while Moth’s delightful singing had a distinctly Woosterian ring to it. The curate and the schoolmaster also seemed to have walked straight out of any Wodehouse novel (or possibly the background of a Beatrix Potter tale). The ladies were also dressed in a series of gorgeous confections, not all of which seemed to be aiding their ability to stride about the stage…
This was a production that was very generous with its share of the limelight. While Sam Alexander and Leah Whitaker took the commanding roles of King of Navarre and Princess of France, and were commanding in them, the other couples managed not to be overshadowed by them or by Lisa Dillon and Edward Bennett’s Rosaline/Berowne comedy double act (Bennett did manage to steal every other scene he was in, though). The curate and schoolmaster’s (John Arthur and Steven Pacey) dog-latin conversations were beautifully cut down to size by a very few words from Chris McCalphy’s policeman. Moth (Peter McGovern) was an unalloyed peppy delight.
It was also well-balanced between the Shakespearean laughs and the fun that can be had with a good set and a great cast. The pageant of the Nine Worthies at the end was almost worthy of Ben Jonson (the spoon guard of honour was a particular favourite), and the scene where the gentlemen visit the ladies dressed as Russians featured surprisingly good dancing, very good balalaika action, and some excellent playing around with accents. The ladies had a wonderful way of acting in concert which suited the mannerisms of the time, as well as being very funny. The music (a specially-composed score) had wonderful Gilbert and Sullivan overtones – a helpful reminder that topsy-turveydom has always been a feature of British drama.
The stand-out genius scene was the unmasking of the four men to each other as lovers, taking place on a rooftop (and the sliding set was GREAT). It was perhaps so frothy that it made light of the potentially serious act of being forsworn, but mainly because it turned out to be saving all of it serious power for a devastating final scene. SPOILERS if you don’t know the end of the play – but it looks not like a nuptial; the Princess of France is informed that her father is dead, and the ladies tell their men to leave them alone for a year.
this shall you do for me:
Your oath I will not trust; but go with speed
To some forlorn and naked hermitage,
Remote from all the pleasures of the world;
There stay until the twelve celestial signs
Have brought about the annual reckoning.
If this austere insociable life
Change not your offer made in heat of blood,
If frosts and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds,
Nip not the gaudy blossoms of your love,
But that it bear this trial, and last love,
Then, at the expiration of the year,
Come, challenge me, challenge me by these deserts
But since this is Edwardian-set, we all know what is coming – and indeed those gentlemen march off at the end of the play in First War uniforms. In my mind that forlorn spot now presages the devastation of the Somme, and that hospital that Berowne is urged by Rosaline to go to “Visit the speechless sick, and still converse With groaning wretches” is filled with his comrades. I am not entirely certain that such a light play could stand this weight put upon it – but then the same was true of the era…