First Nighter: The Royal Shakespeare Company's Regal 'Love's Labour's Lost' and 'Love's Labour's Won'

04/01/2015 05:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

Anyone who knows anything about William Shakespeare's plays is aware of Love's Labour's Lost (British spelling of "Labour," needless to say), the comedy probably written in the early 1590s where the King of Navarre and three chums forswear loving for three years in favor of studying just as the nubile princess of France on an errand from her father rounds the corner with three bewitching BFFs. Uh-oh for the foolish lads.

Bardolators may be less up on the existence of a companion play called Love's Labour's Won, for which there's some historical record but which has otherwise disappeared. The search continues, though.

Or does it need to? The Stratford-upon-Avon-based Royal Shakespeare Company, under suggestions offered by artistic director Gregory Doran and accomplished Shakespeare director Christopher Luscombe, is making a case that the extremely well known Much Ado About Nothing is that supposedly vanished play. The thinking behind the theory: Sniping Love's Labour's Lost lovers Berowne and Rosaline, who labor at love but remain unsatisfied at the final curtain, are studies for -- precursors of -- Much Ado's sniping Benedick and Beatrice, who are accorded the benefit of a denouement wedding.

To promote this happy hypothesis, the RSC has been presenting the comedies in repertory and is now sending them to stateside screens. Love's Labour's Lost has already been shown and will be shown again. Screenings for Love's Labour's Won begin April 2 (check local listings).

Both are surpassingly good treatments. I heartily recommend them, although I definitely question whether it's commercially wise to attach the Love's Labour's Won name to a script that would have more sway with potential patrons under its actual title. Yes, promotional material mentions Much Ado About Nothing, but possibly that's causing further confusion.

I also wonder about the RSC's current assumption of the plays' possible connection. For one thing, if Love's Labour's Lost was written around, say, 1592, mightn't Shakespeare have been inclined to write its bookend piece in the next year or two (or simultaneously) and not as wait several years before quilling Much Ado, an addition to the canon generally thought to have been written about 1598?

For a second thing, Shakespeare's introducing Benedick and Beatrice after Berowne and Rosaline is an example of many of his repetitive tropes. In Much Ado About Nothing -- the title ironically referring to much ado about something extremely unpleasant -- the second female lead Hero is slandered and subsequently given out as dead, a development which also befalls Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Perhaps that play with its positive conclusion could also be declared the missing Love's Labour's Won.

Indeed, the inspiration behind the pairing of Love Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing is the period and location to which they've been transferred -- 1914 for the former and 1919 for the latter. There's the true head-turning notion.

Shifting whereabouts and whenabouts can be a tiresome business with Shakespeare's works, but here it has a positively stunning effect, particularly as the productions were mounted for last year's centennial observation of the Great War's outbreak. (Attention, readers: Spoiler alert for the next sentence.) When the wised up but unrequited Navarre king and mates appear in uniforms at the melancholy Love's Labour's Lost finale, it's Luscombe's devastating coup de theatre.

At the Love's Labour's Won outset Beatrice is a nurse, but, more shrewdly, Luscombe has the villainous Don John arrive as an injured soldier leaning on a crutch. The director had layered in a psychological motive for the man's embittered behavior in the plot against Hero and fiancé Claudio. It was called shell shock then and is termed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) now, but there it is to make spectators gasp. It's the sort of directorial imposition that if Shakespeare -- that early master of psychology -- were he alive now, might applaud.

The pre- and post-war positioning may be the primary contribution for two plays analyzing the prospects for that mysterious thing called love, but throughout both treatments Luscombe keeps the smart ideas coming from minute to minute. (Watch for something involving a teddy bear.) His polished cast members -- headed by the fighting-trim Edward Bennett as Berowne and Benedick and the likewise poised-to-strike Michelle Terry as Rosaline and Beatrice -- never fall down on their assignments. On the contrary, they regularly raise the level to laughing-gas heights.

Also contributing immeasurably to the success are Simon Higlett's evocative costumes and sets, which slip in and out and often rise from beneath the floor; Nigel Hess's music, which incorporates Shakespeare's lyrics in WWI and pre-Jazz Age melodic tunes; Oliver Fenwick's lighting; and Jeremy Dunn's sound.

While watching Love's Labour's Lost and Love's Labour's Won, both boasting fancy wordplay between and among not only the educated nobles but the rustics as well--Dogberry's famous word-butchering included -- I became concerned about how Shakespeare's deliberately elaborate language will hit ears today, especially younger audience members' ears. Berowne, Rosaline, Benedick, Beatrice and their contemporaries -- positioned on no matter what higher or lower social stratum -- take delight in expressing themselves with originality, with verbal flair, with wit.

Will today's young people used to conversing in "I was like..." and "She was like..." and "He was like..." even recognize the banter of peers from either the 16th- or early 20th century? The RSC administration may have pondered that time wrinkle, too. Before the plays begin, a host tells viewers not to worry about understanding everything but merely to let the dialog "wash over you."

That's undoubtedly good advice for two films giving us top-notch versions of the lively Love's Labour's Lost and Love's Labour's Won (Much Ado About Nothing). You wouldn't want to miss a single phrase, not a single cleverly modulated iamb.