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Love's Labour's Lost (2015/16)

Directed by Damien Ryan

Written by William Shakespeare

December 11, 2015 to January 24, 2016

Hundreds of years before Wilde, Shakespeare was in the midst of a wild, rule-breaking love triangle of his own if we are to believe his sonnets.

Hundreds of years before Wilde, Shakespeare was in the midst of a wild, rule-breaking love triangle of his own if we are to believe his sonnets. He wrote his most original comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost, in the same period that produced his incredible outpouring of Sonnets, a tangled web of hetero-and-homo-sexual passion, pain and laughter. No play is more demonstrative of Shakespeare’s art and language than this one, and none closer to the true heart of his poetry.

Four young men and four young women take to romance like hunters to their prey in this dazzling comedy that subverts the ‘Hollywood ending’ hundreds of years before Hollywood dreamt of it.

The company who rescued All’s Well That Ends Well from obscurity unmasks another hidden Shakespeare gem. Love’s Labour’s Lost is as funny and inspiring as Shakespeare gets and in this new adaptation from Damien Ryan, Sport for Jove gives you the rare treat of a full Elizabethan period setting on the big, brand-new mainstage at Bella Vista and in Leura at the Everglades Garden.

Director's Note

This production is dedicated to the memory of Troy Carlson - a true lover, true fool, true friend…

The play’s source and story…
One of perhaps only 3 plays by William Shakespeare that are entirely original, LLL did not draw its plot from other sources, although the central notion of courtiers withdrawing from political engagement to seek academic reflection may have been inspired by the French philosophical pamphlet, ‘The French Academe’ – printed 3 times in English between the years 1586 and 1594 - the latter year bringing the premiere of LLL. The play is set in the court of the King of Navarre, a discrete kingdom between Spain and France which attained huge and sudden interest across Europe when in 1594, the real King of Navarre, Henri (later the famous Henri IV of France), converted to Catholicism and married Princess Margueritte, later Queen Margot.

Like Hamlet, the play’s Quarto and Folio printed versions are a chaos of alterations, apparent errors and borrowings from his own works, including the sonnets. It is possible LLL was written during the long closure of the public playhouses in the early 1590s due to the plague, which forced Shakespeare’s company to rely on touring and on command performances in the wealthy estates and houses of the elite. LLL is likely to have premiered in such a royal home (possibly the Earl of Southampton’s) for a very sophisticated audience and contains a level of linguistic sophistication and self-conscious intellectualism that he would rarely indulge in again. It appears that it may have only made its way to a public playhouse in 1598. A wonderful diary note from an audience member records seeing the play, in the context of taking a girl on a theatre date but failing to win her interest, not helped by the play’s anti-romantic ending where the women take control and shun the men’s advances. It is a beautiful irony.

The play to us…
I love this play. It is my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies. Its almost completely void stage history in this country leads me to believe I am largely alone in that sentiment! It is roundly condemned by scholars as unintelligible, several of whom confess they’ve never seen a production. As with All’s Well That Ends Well, Coriolanus, Richard II and others, I don’t understand its neglect. It may just be laziness about the ease with which we can return to the many recognised masterpieces by the same poet. It may be because it’s rubbish, but I don’t think so, and if it is not entertaining to you tonight, I take the fault on me, not on the playwright. It is extremely funny and finally very moving, and offers possibly the best entrance of a character in any Shakespeare play – when Mercade, the French embassy, arrives in the final act to paint the story a whole new colour.

John Bell, who also loves this play, tells a great story of Picasso scribbling a quick sketch on a napkin and offering it for sale, only to be asked, “But how long did that take to do?”; Picasso’s answer – “Forty years”. Of expertise, of labour, or learning, of hard work, of artistry. This lesser known ‘sketch’ is Will Shakespeare’s sketch – that remarkable mind pored over this play, filled it with endless linguistic invention and delight and was incredibly ambitious in the thematic cohesion within it.

As a young journalist in 1994, it was Love’s Labour’s Lost that sparked my first relationship to theatre. In Parramatta Westfield one afternoon with my beautiful Nan, Isabel, I found myself staring at a huge, almost laughably faux-antique leather bound copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. It was truly enormous, still is, now bending a shelf at home, illustrated with centuries-old prints, swirling with cursive text, and offering a cunningly-produced, illusory promise that owning it would mean holding something rich with historical mystique, something terribly important, something that everyone should pretend to have read. I’m sure it was purely vanity that made me want it. Nan bought it for me. It cost quite a lot. I don’t think I ever really thanked her properly. I have read it every day for over 20 years, it has consumed my every third thought and given me a career for two decades. The book has helped me provide for a family and brought together a theatrical family too. It is a good book.

I got home and opened it at its first title, Two Gentlemen of Verona and prepared to read, but spotting the name of its second play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, I couldn’t help but start there, drawn to it by the pathetic indulgence of my own recently broken 21-year-old heart. On leaving me a few months earlier, my high-school love had very eloquently and honestly explained that after quite a long time together, from the mid teens through to University days, she no longer knew who she was independent of a boyfriend’s expectations and definitions, or the obligations of a couple, or within the paradigm of a young woman in a relationship, or as an appendix to a larger social group of male friends and their girlfriends, structured similarly around the rituals of teenage romance and belonging. I did not understand, feeling only panic and rejection. But she was right, and was entirely clear and articulate about things that I have thought a great deal about since - that there is an atmosphere within young male/female relationships, in a perhaps fundamentally misogynistic culture, that doesn’t allow a young woman to breathe her own air, or find her own way, or indeed, get lost finding her own way. She left me because she didn’t need me, and she was honest and clear and very kind while saying so.

Long before I reached the incredible final pages of Love’s Labour’s Lost the play had leapt off the page. By the time I reached its stunning reversal of every Hollywood expectation in the final act, I realised I was reading precisely what my girlfriend had been trying to tell me on the front steps of my Toongabbie home four centuries after Shakespeare had written it down. That women not only don’t need - but won’t need - love for its own sake, or male influence, or ownership, or to be called beautiful or attractive by men, or be swept up in occasional romantic ideals on certain socially-agreed dates in the year.

It is the women who rule this play and they are extraordinary. Lead by the Princess of France, they bring depth, grace, power, true eloquence, gravity, humanity, humour and real intelligence to the drama. Their journey begins with the rejection of the word ‘fair’ – a description used for every aspect of the women’s bodies, minds, voices and complexions, over 40 times in total. It is their enemy. They loathe it. To live only to carry the label of ‘beauty’, to be a thing gazed at, worshipped, defined by a male gauge of their physical charms, an assessment, an appraisal, even in poetry, is not enough for them. They want a man to work, to act, to do, to commit to a promise, and to make the world a better place in practical terms, not poetic ones. The writing at the end of this play is of a quality that brags of what this young poet, William Shakespeare, would become.

I was unable to put that big book down once I began, the poems, the plays, the notes underneath them. And when I finished I started again. Within a few months some friends and I had come together to start a little theatre company. We hired a week at the Bondi Pavilion and we put on a play – it was Love’s Labour’s Lost. I knew nothing of anything, but had read Tyrone Guthrie’s book on directing where he said, “a director is someone who finds a group of actors stupid enough to work with him/ her and puts on a play”. Our set cost exactly 35 dollars and 18 cents, and was made entirely from cardboard. The costumes were Elizabethan – in the most appallingly naïve way possible, like a pirate theme party taken seriously. It was a joyous experience.

I have studied the play endlessly in that 20 years and my love for it has only deepened. In fact, that first production opened on the same date that this production opens, December 12, 1995, exactly 20 years later - to the day – so it is a special one for me, and one I dedicate to that initial team - Alison, Jim, Kirsty, Adam, Suzanne, John, Robyn, Mark and the whole cast, but most particularly to Troy Carlson, our brilliant Costard, who really made the whole play work, and whom we lost 12 months ago to illness. He was magnificent and I know he’ll be watching tonight, thrilled to see another comic genius, George Banders, sharing his role.

The language in LLL is a “curious knotted garden” as one of its characters says, an intricate and at times impenetrable maze which, upon reading, reminds one of being lost in a giant-hedged labyrinth, frustrating and baffling and downright annoying. It’s a complex riddle on the page, but a beautiful thing on the stage. In hearing or watching this play, we recognise that running through a great maze, turning corners that twist back upon themselves and lead us in circles, is precisely the glorious point of the game. Love is an endlessly impossible riddle and finding the way out is as difficult as finding the way in.
Within the first 50 lines, Biron (the leading character), begins to wind up the watch of his intellectual fancy:

“Light seeking light doth light of light beguile.
So ‘ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.”

If you think about it, it’s true, but how do you understand it to think about it?! There is much more wildly difficult material than this in LLL, particularly from the comic characters and typically the explanatory notes beneath a passage are four times the length of the passage itself, as scholars dig deep trenches of meaning and counter-meaning. As Harley Granville-Barker wrote of LLL in 1924 – “a fashionable play, now, by three hundred years, out of fashion”, he says, joking that we need a modern schoolmaster, “in cap and gown, standing on one side of the proscenium, to interrupt with, ‘One moment please! The allusion here, if you wish to appreciate its humour, is…” etc. He recommends careful cutting and possibly, “better, not act it at all”.

Holofernes, the schoolmaster within the play, takes the linguistic gymnastics to their dizziest height every time he opens his mouth:

Most barbarous intimation! yet a kind of insinuation, as it were, in via, in way, of explication; facere, as it were, replication, or rather, ostentare, to show, as it were, his inclination, after his undressed, unpolished, etc etc etc

But here precisely lies the point of this play. Long before Beckett, Pinter or Ionesco, Shakespeare would explore the dysfunction and impotence of words. Love’s Labour’s Lost was making the same point they did 300 years earlier, but rather than breaking language down to silence, non-sequitur and repetition as the 20th Century absurdists would come to do, Shakespeare piles it high with every poetic indulgence, brim-full of artifice and genius until we gag at the effect. “Three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical…” as Biron says of his own impotent words. We initially believe that these men’s poetry will come to define their greatness and their success in love, but we realise by the end how artificial the effect of poetry is and how little fortification words offer against the true forces of human feeling. It is a brave and sophisticated point for a young poet to make, he is disabling the very thing that provides his livelihood - poetry and word-play – taking language and its rules and conventions to the absurd limit of non-communication. Holofernes’ partner in word-crime is Nathaniel (Nathalia in this production). She sums up the philosophy when she criticises the simplicity of the mentally dull officer, Anthony Dull, with the phrase, “he hath not eat paper, he hath not drunk ink…”. These characters believe they can actually feed on language. The Spanish servant, Moth, mocks them, as having “been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps”.

At the conclusion, the men - the authors of this anti-language - get what their vanity and verbosity deserve, despite Biron seeing the truth and even naming it – “Honest, plain words best pierce the ear of grief”, he says – yet his habit or addiction to dazzling language proves his undoing again and again.

Our adaptation…
What sets this play apart are its links to Shakespeare’s other remarkable body of work – his Sonnets and his narrative poems, written in the same period as LLL. The play contains more sonnets and consciously spoken poetry than any other Shakespeare work, and no play of his carries a more autobiographical sense, taking us into the crucible of how a poem is conceived, made, shaped and, often, ruined by indulgence. Biron is in love with a ‘dark lady’ - black of hair, eye and soul, according to him. Her name is Rosaline, a handle Shakespeare would develop repeatedly for women of unattainable and entirely formidable beauty, strength and intelligence, in Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It (Rosalind). The final stretch of Shakespeare’s sonnets offers an explicit, wildly erotic and desperate vision of a poet’s passion for ‘a dark lady’, a passion that will remain unachieved and unresolved. This play mirrors that journey.

In the interests of clarity, I have removed some of the play’s most impenetrable material (there is plenty of challenging language still at work) and developed a couple of the smaller roles –whose inadequacy has been much criticized by scholars over the centuries - using brief connections from his other lesser known early works, and his poetry. I have also developed the connection to the sonnets even more closely, in the interests of bringing something of Shakespeare’s own world to bear more holistically in the play. We have also explored some small textual links to his longer poems, including Venus and Adonis, again a story of palpably similar thematic resonance to LLL, and written in the same year. It was a period of remarkable linguistic courage and explosion for the young Shakespeare.

As a point of fun and for its startling thematic resonance, we have also inserted one poem by the man who shares Biron’s name and personality, Lord Byron, the great 18th/19th Century poet and troublemaker. His extraordinary piece, “She Walks In Beauty”, captures precisely the antithetical mix of dark and bright, and ‘fair’ beauty of a “raven-haired” woman, that Shakespeare expressed in Rosaline. In a celebration of poetry, we honour, anachronistically, this magnificent piece of writing.

This celebration manifests itself in the setting too. We rarely see an Elizabethan approach to the plays anymore, especially in this country, and it is certainly an incredible challenge to take it on due to the sheer expense of creating the costumes, especially for an unfunded, independent company, but thanks to the commitment, skill and generosity of an astonishingly gifted and dedicated designer, Mel Liertz, we have achieved it. She has made, from scratch, with the tremendous assistance of Bernadette Ryan, a full compliment of hand-crafted Elizabethan costumes on a minute budget. It is a staggering achievement and I want to acknowledge Mel’s work here in the highest terms. It is his most definitively Elizabethan play and speaks of a labyrinthine connection to words and word-play, offering something of a portrait of Shakespeare himself in Biron I think. We wanted to reinforce its original context.

The most significant adaptation comes with the character of Longaville and is again inspired by Shakespeare’s own context. To boost the number of opportunities for female actors in the play, and the quality of the roles, Longaville is played here by Gabrielle Scawthorne, as a woman infiltrating the privileges of Elizabethan men to learn and hunt and read and express themselves with freedom. It also allows us to foreground an issue that we as a group of people care very deeply about, marriage equality. Oscar Wilde, a homosexual or bisexual playwright, deliberately paints an abject and highly satirized portrait of heterosexual marriage, at times laughing at the privilege, at others making it as ridiculous, darkly perverse and vapid as he possibly can. Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays also revel in the pain and misery of heterosexual marriage, while offering several portraits of homoerotic desire, each sustained with great dignity. In the interests of our society’s relationship with such equality, we thought it exciting and powerful to allow an audience to engage with an honest and deeply felt same-sex relationship through Longaville and Maria, and through Gaby, create a striking resemblance to The Earl of Southampton (the individual for whom the play was most likely written), a flame-haired man of great beauty, who for all the world, looked like a woman. Shakespeare’s first 126 sonnets are addressed to a man, who as Sonnet 20 reveals, has “a woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted”. The figure in the sonnets is probably not Southampton and may in fact be another androgynous boy, Sir William Herbert - the mystery may never be solved - but we have some fun with it here for the Shakespeare buffs!

We hope you enjoy the opportunity to experience one of Shakespeare’s least known works and thank you for sharing it with us.

Production Reviews

"From beginning to end the entire evening is a delight. Ryan has created a wonderful piece of theatre, with a play that is obviously dear to his heart. Shakespeare’s text is poetic and playful, exploratory and revealing. Sport For Jove has, once again, come at us guns blazing. "

"...this cleverly tweaked production by director Damien Ryan fairly leaps out from its confines. An infectious energy flows outward, all the way to the top of the slope."

"The actors too go beyond the ordinary in achieving engaging performances that, in this instance, kept the audience rapt and delighted despite the extreme heat....Nobody does it quite like Sport for Jove and Love’s Labour’s Lost is no exception. Recommended."

Production Gallery

Photography by Marnya Rothe

  • Aaron Tsindos | Moth

  • Berynn Schwerdt | Don Adriano de Armado

  • Claire Lovering | Jaquenetta

  • Curtis Fernandez | Dumain

  • Edmund Lembke-Hogan | King Ferdinand of Navarre

  • Emily Eskell | Princess of France

  • Gabrielle Scawthorn | Longaville

  • George Banders |Costard

  • James Lugton | Holofernes

  • Lara Schwerdt | Maria

  • Madeleine Jones | Katherine

  • Sabryna Te'o | Rosaline

  • Scott Sheridan | Anthony Dull / Artist

  • Tim Walter | Biron

  • Wendy Strehlow | Nathalia

  • Anca Frankenhaeuser | Dance Choreography

  • Anna Gardiner | Festival Set Co-designer

  • Bronte Axam | Stage Manager

  • Damien Ryan | Director and Festival Set Co-designer

  • David Stalley | Sound Design / Videography

  • Drew Livingston | Original Scores

  • Jeremy Page | Festival Production Manager

  • Kit Bennett | Assistant Director

  • Melanie Liertz | Costume Designer

  • Rosalind Bunting | Scenic Artist

  • Sian James-Holland | Lighting Designer

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