Behind the play: Matthew Radford Davies talks LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Love’s Labour’s Lost joined the repertory of the Summer/Fall Season last week.  Today we catch up with director Matthew Radford Davies to hear his thoughts on the newest addition to the Blackfriars Playhouse lineup.

You’ve directed the Mary Baldwin University MFA company in the Blackfriars Playhouse, but this is your first time directing the resident troupe.  What’s different?  What’s the same?

Working with the resident troupe, I find myself practicing what I preach during the semester, which is an enabling experience.  The professionals are skilled musicians, not just of instruments, but also of the sound box that is the Blackfriars stage.  They play the frets that we spend time locating in class.  One of the central tenets of our MFA approach is collaboration, which is a buzzword in theatre pedagogy but which is even harder to effect than to spell.  I’m delighted to affirm that the collaborative spirit as the ASC, to which our students aspire, is alive and well.

You mention in your director’s note a 1930 quote from Harley Granville-Barker. “Here is a fashionable play now three hundred years out of fashion.”  Why was he wrong?  What makes this play fashionable in 2017?

I don’t think Harley G-B was wrong.  (Is he ever?)  But plays have their times, their kairotic moments, and just as quickly find themselves out of joint again.  Coriolanus, a long-neglected play, is everywhere at the moment, perhaps unsurprising given the current political climate.  As the world stumbled from Edwardian excess into a Great Depression, and the threat of war began to rear its head once more, it’s easy to see why theatregoers might struggle to care about the emotional anxieties of la jeunesse doree.  Post-war, I suspect the play started to re-engage with sexual politics, feminism, and the battle of the sexes.  Meanwhile, the slipperiness of the language and the generic uncertainty of the ending clearly appealed to the postmodern sensibility that favored skepticism and heterodoxy over conformity and hierarchy.  Beneath its elegant exterior and its plotted edicts and male-directed mandates, lurks a roguish energy of doubt and questioning that, I think, contemporary directors find intriguing and appealing.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is often heralded for its linguistic brilliance.  We’ve been calling it “Shakespeare’s most exuberant word-fest.”  Shakespeare is, of course, known for his mastery of the English language.  What is it like working on a play that’s particularly spectacular even by the high standards set by Shakespeare’s other works?

I remember once reading that language in LLL is a character in its own right.  If so, then this character is as intriguing and untrustworthy and compelling as all the others in the play.  Throughout the canon, Shakespeare displays the fabulous paradox of an author both enamored by and deeply skeptical of, the written language.  In Love’s Labour’s, as in so many of his plays, letters are the guarantors of disaster, but in this play the spoken word gets equally challenging treatment, since what the characters say is as untrustworthy as it is seductive.  So, as theatre makers, we need to do more than just say the lines clearly, we need to luxuriate in them, their syntax and sound, their rhetorical dexterity.  Not surprisingly, amid such linguistic opulence, the simple lines — often short and expressed in Anglo-Saxon terms – land most powerfully.  One of my favorite lines in the play, in the entire canon, in fact, is Berowne’s simple, sudden exclamation, “ — O, my little heart.”  But that purity of expression gains its power, its energy, emerging from its rhetorically dense context.

We think Shakespeare may have written a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost called Love’s Labour’s Won, but there are no surviving copies.  Some scholars believe LLW might actually just be Much Ado about Nothing.  Do you think there is any merit to that idea?  Is it special to direct a production of LLL playing in repertory with Much Ado?

While the RSC recently staged this clever conceit, with the same actors “appropriately cast” across the two plays — Benedick/Berowne to Beatrice/Rosaline, for instance — with the narrative conjoined, or divided, by the Great War — I strongly doubt that Much Ado is LLW (which quite possibly existed and is now lost).  I am, however, delighted that the ASC is bringing LLL and Much Ado together in one season, especially as they’re both in period dress, since audiences can judge for themselves how well the plays work as companion pieces.  I am personally as struck by the differences as well as the connections, and the way the two productions ask us to view a similar theme and cast of characters from very different angles.

What scenes or characters should audiences specifically look for?

In this production, we have worked extremely hard to fashion individuals from a formulaic plot structure.  While the lovers are clearly patterned in groups, their concerns echoed and enriched by the “rusticals,” we also wanted to ensure they had their own arcs and expectations.  Not only do the lords and ladies each have journeys to travel and lessons to learn, they all pursue their developing loves in subtly different ways.  We’ve also worked to tie the comic subplot, featuring the love triangle between the hearty Jaquenetta, the lusty Costard and Armado, the Spanish knight down-on-his-luck, as tightly as possible to the main plot. Comedy, romance, and potential tragedy (in the form of a melancholic undertow), intermingle in this play of sophisticates, sophists, and simple rustics, and we want you, the audience, to never quite know what will float to the surface at any given moment.  We hope that the characters constantly surprise you, and challenge all of our easy expectations.

Is there anything else you’d like our audiences to know?

Romantic comedies work best when the audience is playing catch-up, just one step behind the love trysts and the comic shenanigans, and panting in excitement to keep up.  Put on your running shoes, and tune your ears: you’re in for a frantic feast of wit, wisdom, and waggery.

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