Director Christopher Luscombe and Arundel-based designer Simon Higlett sensed they had unfinished business on their hands with their double-bill of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing.
But they feared the adventure was over when it finished its run at Stratford. Now, however, the double production gets a second life and a chance at London thanks to outgoing Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director Jonathan Church.
With echoes of the two-part Nicholas Nickleby which began Jonathan’s reign at the CFT and which Simon also designed, the Shakespeare double will close the Church era at the Festival Theatre. The two plays will run in the main-house from September 24-October 29 before heading off to Manchester Opera House and then settling in at the Haymarket in London for three months.
Simon is delighted to have the chance to revisit the whole thing – a double bill which sets Love’s Labour’s Lost pre-World War One and Much Ado post-Great War.
Simon and Chris relocate to Love’s Labour’s Lost to summer 1914. In order to dedicate themselves to a life of study, the King and his friends take an oath to avoid the company of women for three years. No sooner have they made their idealistic pledge than the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting arrive, presenting the men with a severe test of their high-minded resolve – the characters unaware that the world around them is about to be utterly transformed by the war to end all wars.
Much Ado picks up in winter 1918. A group of soldiers return from the trenches. The world-weary Benedick and his friend Claudio find themselves reacquainted with Beatrice and Hero. As memories of conflict give way to a life of parties and masked balls, Claudio and Hero fall madly, deeply in love, while Benedick and Beatrice reignite their own altogether more combative courtship.
Simon admits he did something of a double take when director Chris phoned him one Sunday morning to ask him if he wanted to be involved in the double staging: “I put the phone down and said to my wife ‘I think I have just agreed to two Shakespeares!’”
But the project instantly made sense. The task became to find somewhere to set it. They chanced on the National Trust property Charlecote Park in Warwickshire.
As Simon explains: “Shakespeare would have known the distinctive Elizabethan silhouette of the façade. But the house was largely remodelled in the 19th century, so we could believe in an Edwardian family living there. We had looked around for three or four weeks. Chris had wanted a real location rather than somewhere just made up. We wanted somewhere real to ground it in, and so we started visiting places around and went to Charlecote for the day. It has got a very big, large gatehouse which is just perfect to accommodate the French Princess and her entourage, barred from the house in Love’s Labour’s Lost.”
It also offered a magnificent rooftop, overlooking the Avon, a suitably-romantic hideaway for the sonnet-scribbling lords: “The billiard room, library (with its inscription above the fireplace: ‘Live to Learn, Learn to Live’), the church – all seemed to be ready-made locations for key scenes in the plays. The place just inspired in us lots of ideas.”
And now Chris and Simon can give it all new life again: “There are seven new members of the company, and the rest are coming back, about 15 returning. We just really, really wanted to do it all again, but we all thought when it finished that it was really finished. We tried hard to think of a way of bringing it back, and fortunately Jonathan wanted it.”
Everyone is keen to take a fresh approach: “Obviously there is a lot of ‘This is how we did it before’, but we are definitely trying to reinvent it. It’s great to revisit something that was a success because you know it works, but it means that you can be more analytical about why it was a success, analyse more what worked and how you might make things work even better, how you can improve things.”
And with seven new actors coming in, Simon is definitely back in the game again: “We are trying not to treat it quite as a revival, but as an improved, very special revival. We have made it a bit shorter, and we are doing things slightly differently.
“We have had to change things a little because of the logistics of the Haymarket. Our designs in Stratford were based on a very, very large lift, and the floors slipped around that. We could actually do that in Chichester, but we wouldn’t actually have that facility in London so we are changing it for Chichester as well, but we are very much wanting to keep to the spirit of what we did. Just everything seemed to work really well. We had a really great time in rehearsal, and everyone was very creative, and everyone got on really well. Almost for the first time in my career, all the creative team were back for the last night. Usually you are all together on the first night and then you are off on other things, but for this one, we all got back together. I don’t think the two plays had been put together before. Certainly there have been Love’s Labour’s Losts and Much Ados set in this period, but not together, and what was joyous was that Love’s Labour’s Lost is fairly impenetrable to read, but comes alive in this. I read it and thought it was going to be pretty tough going, but with this is was great.”
For Simon, it’s great to be working once again, as he has done so often, at Chichester.
It’s a great theatre to work on, but a challenging one for a designer: “That space is fairly scary. It’s a big epic space that was designed originally for Shakespeare and designed for very simple staging techniques.
“It is set up really for just being the actor in the space. If you put a sofa on there, you have instantly got the back of someone’s head for someone in the audience. But we had exactly the same problem in Stratford, and that was what we were trying to sort out.”
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