BEFORE THE DAWN OF WAR…THE LAST LARKS
This is the young Shakespeare: making his way, dazzling with wordplay, confecting improbable japes and charades, laughing at absurd elders, revelling in what his Lord Berowne calls “the kingly state of youth”. And in this improbable but finally triumphant treatment, Christopher Luscombe hijacks this lesser play to create one of the merriest, saddest, most unexpected centenary tributes to the 1914 generation.
He sets it in 1914, in a Simon Higlett set which is parquet-’n-portrait perfect , an artful faux-brick reconstruction of the Elizabethan manor at Charlecote Park, near Stratford. Shakespeare’s plot – in which the King of Navarre and his nobles swear a pact to fast, study and avoid the company of women for a period – fits surprisingly well with languid, earnest flannelled young Edwardians: it was, after all, the era of public school austerities, reading-parties, and cold baths to quell lust. And the lads are a delight: Sam Alexander as the slightly preachy leader, his mates Longaville (William Belchambers) and earnest Dumaine (Tunji Kasim), with Edward Bennett as the doubter Berowne, who finally agrees to sign the pact. But the Princess of France and her three gorgeous ladies are nearby, so the chaps obviously fall in love with them, and try to do their wooing without the others knowing. Light relief and confusion is added by John Hodgkinson as a comedy Spaniard with language difficulties (ramped up mercilessly with lines about “Men of Piss” ) various servants, notably a barmily rustic Nick Haverson as Costard, an even more comedy policeman Dull (Chris McCalphy, who scores two rounds of applause all for himself on his RSC debut, once for an inexplicable ballet moment) .
And there’s a wickedly mocked schoolmaster and parson, joyfully the butts of that young Shakespeare: David Horovitch is a harrumphinly, pedantically wonderful Holofernes, and Thomas Wheatley gets a particular moment as the curate which, dammit, brought tears to my eyes.
The plot – think Downton Abbey rewritten by PG Wodehouse with some terrible Elizabethan puns and sudden great poetry – is mainly driven by the men, not least when they dress up as Cossacks and attempt a Russian dance. There’s an absurd charade led by the Spaniard, and in a fabulous rooftop-eavesdropping session in Jaeger dressing-gowns which culminates in Berowne threatening to throw poor Dumaine’s teddy over the parapet. But the women get their moments too, forming a kind of white-satin-clad Girl Gang to torment their four lovers: Leah Whitaker, Michelle Terry, Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Frances McNamee sometimes moving in synchrony, sometimes breaking away to offer moments of real emotion near the end.
Which is – and this is another reason it all fits so well with 1914 – a downbeat end. In the play, the Princess of France’s father dies and they must all delay their happy endings. In the theatre – well, you only need to put the four young men in khaki, and have the civilians left behind singing to Nigel Hess’ lovely score, and you’ve made the point with gentle, appropriate sorrow. Edwardian certainties and jokes, gone forever with the kingly state of youth. Never glad confident morning again.
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk
(and the CD of speech and music is released: for this and its companion-piece, Love’s Labour’s Won, aka Much Ado. Whose review will follow tomorrow…)