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Love's Labour's Lost On Screen

Film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare's philosophical romance

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One of Shakespeare's most formally elegant and verbally inventive comedies (nearly two-thirds of the lines rhyme, and it coined more previously unrecorded words than any other Shakespeare play), Love's Labour's Lost is thought to have been written in the mid-1590s, possibly just before A Midsummer Night's Dream, with which it shares a beguiling blend of romance, philosophy and broad farce, and a climax involving a less than polished stage show. It revolves around a noble-minded but impractical pact made by the King of Navarre and three of his lords to spend three years devoted entirely to nourishing the mind while shunning the pleasures of the flesh, though temptation inevitably turns out to be overwhelming. The play's uncharacteristically open ending may have led to a sequel, Love's Labour's Won, though there is no evidence that the latter was ever performed, and no text survives.

There have been four British screen adaptations, the first three for television. The BBC first broadcast the play on 6 June 1965, sourced from Val May's stage production for the Bristol Old Vic, which had already been performed in sixteen countries on a British Council tour of Europe and the Middle East prior to its television airing. It starred David Dodimead (Ferdinand of Navarre), Richard Pasco (Berowne), Christopher Benjamin (Armado), Eithne Dunne (Princess of France), Barbara Leigh-Hunt (Rosaline) and James Cossins (Holofernes).

The first production made specifically for television was broadcast on 14 December 1975 in the BBC's Play of the Month slot. It was shot entirely on location in the gardens of Glyndebourne in Sussex, and starred Martin Shaw (Ferdinand), Jeremy Brett (Berowne), Maurice Denham (Armado), Sinéad Cusack (Rosaline) and Jonathan Cecil (Holofernes). It was Cedric Messina's last Shakespeare production before he embarked on the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle (1978-85), though it could easily have been included in Messina's first series (1978-9), Basil Coleman's conservative production being stylistically almost identical to his As You Like It (BBC, tx. 17/12/1978).

The BBC Television Shakespeare itself left Love's Labour's Lost until almost the very end, finally broadcasting it as the penultimate production on 5 January 1985. Differing from its predecessor in almost every respect, Elijah Moshinsky's production arguably stretched the BBC Shakespeare's contentious stylistic guidelines further than anything else in the series, setting the play in a Mozart-scored eighteenth-century setting, its bewigged characters and Regency architecture providing a fitting visual match for Shakespeare's meticulously crafted witticisms. It starred Jonathan Kent (Ferdinand), Mike Gwilym (Berowne), David Warner (Armado), Maureen Lipman (the Princess), Jenny Agutter (Rosaline) and John Wells (Holofernes).

In 2000, Kenneth Branagh adapted the play for the cinema, updating it a further two centuries to the eve of war in 1939. In contrast to his four-hour full-text Hamlet (US/UK, 1996), Branagh here jettisons some three-quarters, retaining the situation but losing much of the wordplay. What remains is turned into a tribute to 1930s Hollywood musical comedy, complete with ten song-and-dance numbers by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and their contemporaries. The result garnered mixed reviews, and is arguably a more effective tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers than it is to Shakespeare - though entertaining enough on its own terms. As with Branagh's earlier Much Ado About Nothing (US/UK, 1993), the transatlantic casting blends experienced Shakespeare players (Branagh himself, Adrian Lester, Timothy Spall, Richard Briers) with good-looking neophytes (Alessandro Nivola, Alicia Silverstone, Natasha McElhone).

Michael Brooke

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