Rising above a tsunami of hype, Brit TV star David Tennant (“Dr. Who”) offers an effortless-seeming star turn as cynical Berowne in his second RSC appearance (after the well-received and London-bound “Hamlet”) this season. Tennant reveals bang-on comic timing, an intelligent, easeful way with the often obscure language of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” and a quality of mirthful knowingness that both fits the character and embodies what director Gregory Doran seems to be aiming for in this production. Show overall is lavishly pretty, well-acted, and full of quality laughs, even if it sometimes lapses into excessive shtick.
The play has one of the spottiest records in the Shakespearian canon: Called “mean, childish, and vulgar” by Dr. Johnson in 1765, it had no professional productions between Shakespeare’s time and the early 19th century. Modern scholarship and productions have recovered it by celebrating the contrast of its frothy, romantic-comedy quality with its uniquely dark ending — it is the only Shakespeare comedy that doesn’t end with marriage.
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For most of its first act, Doran’s prod strikes a highly entertaining, ironic tone, acknowledging the daftness of the dialogue and situations. The look is pleasingly Elizabethan — ladies in gorgeous brocaded gowns, men in breeches and hose — combined with set designer Francis O’Connor’s nicely non-representational touch of strands of green-colored glass hanging from the flies to represent the sylvan setting.
Wisely, Doran has Navarre (Edward Bennett) and his courtiers, including Tennant’s Berowne, enter during the preshow and loll about the set, thus getting the inevitable star-spotting kerfuffle over with.
The plot, such as it is, involves Navarre and his men agreeing (despite Berowne’s initial resistance) to forswear society — including the company of ladies — in the play’s first scene. They then of course fall madly in love with the Princess of France and her three handmaidens.
Minor complications ensue, some sillier than others (the men dressing up as Cossacks is definitely the silliest), but what Doran’s production gets just right is an overall lightness of tone: We know all along everything will end up as it should, and the performers transmit the sense that they do, too. Tennant in particular demonstrates mastery in creating audience complicity, and finds a strong comic match in Nina Sosanya’s lovely, quick-witted Rosaline.
While the lovers’ scenes are delightful, Doran’s efforts to liven up the subplots feel strained: It’s a funny gag to have pompous Spaniard Armado (Joe Dixon) dress his page Moth (the almost terrifyingly pert child actress Zoe Thorne) exactly like him, down to the mini-coxcomb, but Armado’s mangling of the English language (“Men of piss, well encountered”) quickly outlives its welcome. The redoubtable Oliver Ford Davies fares better as Latin-spouting schoolmaster Holofernes — we may seldom know what he’s talking about, but he’s always funny.
The final, shocking tone-switch into darkness is handled with moving simplicity, and the audience’s willingness to accept this shift is evidence of the production’s overall effectiveness. It’s gratifying that the new auds that are flocking to Stratford to see Tennant are being exposed to such an entertaining take on Shakespeare.