What a difference an interval — sorry, intermission — makes. There’s no other way to sum up one’s experience of the lavish and leisurely Royal National Theater production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which marks the final production of National a.d. Trevor Nunn after 5½ years at the helm. Closing out his tenure with a staging that takes until its second half to show off Nunn as the leading classicist that he is, “Love’s Labour’s” demands a labor of love from an audience to last out the mirth-free first hour or so. Come the break, and it’s as if the quicksilver tragicomic spirit of Chekhov has been channeled into this Shakespeare play, as was true some two decades ago of Nunn’s defining Royal Shakespeare Co. “All’s Well That Ends Well.” If “Love’s Labour’s” is more a partial success, at its best it makes clear just what the National will lose once Nunn departs — a director with an acute sense of text who can shadow even this play’s sunnier passages with the gathering clouds of pain.
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The gravitas, of course, is embedded in the word “lost” in Shakespeare’s title, and Nunn wastes no time bringing the play’s underlying grief to the boil. In a literally explosive, thunderous opening that essentially frames the comedy as one long extended reverie, our hero Berowne (Joseph Fiennes, in his National debut) is glimpsed mid-combat in what would seem to be World War I. Then the stage dims, the sounds of giggles are heard and we are transplanted to a more bucolic time, with a more innocent Berowne as one of a group of randy young swells who are trying, none too happily, to swear off girls.
Nunn’s directorial embellishment is of a piece with a play that isn’t shy about facing up to death, as Berowne will himself remark in an eleventh-hour comment to his beloved Rosaline (a sparkling Kate Fleetwood) that “mirth cannot move a soul in agony.” But just as Nunn’s previous National Theater “Summerfolk” added on a coda that made what was politically implicit in Gorky’s play thuddingly obvious, Nunn seems here to be working too hard on behalf of a play whose own summery passages are sufficiently flecked with pathos as it is. The invented bookends, in the final analysis, add very little.
What the production captures in between, and once it hits its stride, is that same quality “Summerfolk” so perfectly caught: the sense of a fully inhabited stage populated not by actors but by people going about their lives, which in this play, in more instances than not, means surrendering to the forbidden song of love. The three lords, accompanied by the King of Navarre (Simon Day), are supposed to be giving themselves over to three years of study, a resolution that doesn’t reckon with the comely arrival of a female entourage from France.
Before long, the leafy tendrils of the tree dominating John Gunter’s pastoral set are enfolding various amorous trysts and multiple deceptions and even a segue or two into song, as if to remind us that this is the same company (with two notable additions) concurrently appearing at the National in Nunn’s production of “Anything Goes.” If you’ve got the singers, flaunt them.
To be honest, several of the carryovers from the Cole Porter sellout don’t look entirely sure what they’re doing here, chief among them John Barrowman (Dumaine), Annette McLaughlin (the milkmaid Jaquenetta), and Martin Marquez (a surprisingly unfunny Don Armado, the resident Spaniard).
But Day’s King strikes freshly appealing notes of officiousness (“I have been closely shrouded in this bush,” he intones grandly), and Robin Soans, face souring like some aging hobbit as he corrects a dullard’s pronunciation of the word “debt,” is priceless as the pedantic Holofernes, the schoolteacher whose frame of reference, for whatever reason, here includes the Internet.
The new recruits to Nunn’s ensemble acquit themselves beautifully. Film actress Olivia Williams (“The Sixth Sense,” “Rushmore”) is an enchanting presence as the ladies’ ringleader who seizes the chance to participate in an elaborate, Russian-themed ritual of disguise.
Joseph Fiennes presses the screen ardor he displayed in “Shakespeare in Love” into rapturous service on stage, his eyebrows keeping pace with every circumlocution of this most verbally hyper-elaborate of the Bard’s plays. It’s to Fiennes’ credit that in so wit-obsessed a text, his Berowne always bears witness to that realm where words leave off and where something else comes flooding in. Let’s think of it as punch-drunk love.