Christmas theatre usually tends towards the funny and feel-good, a welcome distraction from pre-holiday stress. The RSC's double bill of Love's Labour's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing is a suitably rich, chocolate-box interpretation of two comedies executed with precision and detail, set either side of the first world war. It's warm and fuzzy, but this restrained, proscenium arch style of Shakespeare doesn't satisfy the appetite for long.
Inspired by Warwickshire stately home Charlecote Park, Simon Higlett's red brick edifice establishes a secure, upper class world of couples falling in love. Though the men are often clad in first world war uniforms, the trench warfare is wholly distant from the opulence of the landed gentry and their Downton Abbey-esque servants. Christopher Luscombe's concept adds some gravitas to what are otherwise frivolous tales of love and sex, but forcing the update doesn't fully translate — neither of the plays are about wartime hardship, so the costumes function superficially rather than providing new insight into classic stories. The design, both set and costumes, are sumptuous and indulgent.
These productions are typical RSC fare — well spoken, mostly white middle class and commercial. There is nothing innovative or progressive about the approach, though the cast is strong and there is some particularly excellent physical comedy and improvisation. Both productions have good pace and timing, and there are few moments that drag — as is expected from the RSC.
Tunji Kasim as Dumaine and Claudio, and Edward Bennett as Berowne and Benedick are charismatic and flawed leading men. They suitable charm their love interests and display lovely moments of vulnerability. Lisa Dillon is a spiky but flirty Beatrice and Rosaline, and Emma Manton a vibrant common character. The company play roles in both shows, but it's a shame that the characters most of the actors play are similar.
Nigel Hess's original compositions played by live musicians add to the holiday feel. As well as functioning to cover transitions, it helps to flesh out the masques and dances in both plays. The cast are also strong singers, joining in with hymns and evening entertainment.
There's little to fault with this pair of shows. They're light and lovely, well performed and a feast for the senses. However, there's nothing that makes any sort of comment on contemporary society and they function within a bubble of 'museum Shakespeare'. There's nothing wrong with them, but neither is there anything about the double bill that is particularly memorable. Once the holidays are over, they will be quickly tucked away and forgotten.