Love’s Labour’s Lost, RSC, review: oozing charm from a Bridgerton star, but choreographed silliness steals the show

The RSC's new staging of Love's Labour's Lost
The RSC's new staging of Love's Labour's Lost - Johan Persson

When inaugurating your tenure running the RSC - as its new joint artistic directors Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey did on Thursday night - you might as well begin near the beginning, with an early Shakespeare comedy. No one craves Lear as an opening gambit.

Moreover Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Emily Burns and boasting Bridgerton star Luke Thompson in one of the romantic leads, sounds a pertinently festive note when it comes to this venerated institution. A rom-com about four men who vow to bury themselves in study but come swiftly unstuck through irrepressible desire speaks to the tension between the RSC’s scholastic duties and its core need to provision fun.

There was a sumptuous, Downton-esque revival here 10 years ago, set in 1914 and neatly paired with Much Ado About Nothing. Burns’s approach is to whisk the action into the present-day and cast the King of Navarre’s all work-no play male retreat (with three courtiers of varying biddability) as the whim of a rich, Elon Musk-style tech-pioneer, on some Pacific island idyll. The opening lines (establishing the political crisis that comes to grim fruition at the sobering climax) are here spoken in Hawaiian.

Royal Shakespeare Company's Love's Labour's Lost is now showing
Royal Shakespeare Company's Love's Labour's Lost by Shakespeare is now showing - Johan Persson

Joanna Scotcher’s set is a palatial array involving a sweeping staircase, imposing pillars, fake turf, palm trees too. The conceit encodes the wit-stuffed dialogue with a sense of the in-jokey banter of the WhatsApp generation; there are a few nods to Tinder and enough selfie posing when the Princess of France’s party makes its chic arrival to incorporate facile Instagram culture too.

But the framing device is really just a canny means to predictable ends, which is to make us wonder whether anything has changed between the sexes, viz youthful, awkward wooing, and the age-old spectacle of male inadequacy. Burns’ production is attentive to the language without being daunted by it – there are judicious edits and fresh, anachronistic ad-libs. Aside from being superbly cast, it has terrific tonal certainty; even when some abstruse word-play gets aired, it feels grounded in relatable attitudes.

Inevitably, a lot of Bridgerton fans’ eyes will be on the photogenic Thompson who’s a straight fit for romantic intrigue. Aside from oozing charm as Berowne, the most sceptical of Navarre’s party, he prompts titters as he shinnys up a palm-tree to eavesdrop on his oath-breaking pals, and a dash of titillation as he strips down to his undies to profess his bare devotion to Ionna Kimbrook’s aloof and amused Rosaline.

Luke Thompson shinnys up a palm-tree
Luke Thompson shinnys up a palm-tree - Johan Persson

Swoon ye may, but it’s the choreographed silliness that gladdens the heart, from Jack Bardoe’s strutting hoot of a Spaniard Don Armado, like a Borat avant la lettre, to the self-made bachelors appearing in knight in armour costumes to the boyband sound of I Want it That Way.

It’s fascinating, in observing the nuance brought to the clowning element, how much Shakespeare’s text anticipates not only his other, better work, but modern-day comic staples – there’s even a touch of John Cleese’s creations to Tony Gardner’s education-puffed, pedantic Holofernes.

What, overall, does this tell us about the future direction of the RSC? Not much, to be honest, besides the ongoing guarantee of high-calibre shows; that’s enough to be getting on with, though, while the honeymoon period lasts.

Until May 18. Tickets: 01789 331111 or