Love's Labour's Lost

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Until July 11

Home And Beauty

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 15

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Shakespeare is not, contrary to his towering cultural stature, above criticism. He was not infallible, and not everything that flowed from his quill pen did so with effortless perfection. Some of the Bard's plays are better than others, as any theatre group dedicated to performing his oeuvre will testify.

From the Royal Shakespeare Company to the fearless band of sisters and brothers who present Glasgow's annual Bard in the Botanics (BiB) festival, every Shakespeare-dedicated company will meet with plays that are somewhat resistant to being presented to 21st-century audiences. One such is Love's Labour's Lost.

The play, in which the King of Navarre swears himself and his noblemen to abstinence from the company of women, is splendidly conceived. However, it lacks the superb structure and brilliantly-drawn characters of the really great Shakespeare comedies, such as Twelfth Night and The Tempest. Consequently, it tends to sag in places.

Love's Labour's Lost is, simultaneously, a bold defence of pleasure during the reign of the "Virgin Queen", Elizabeth I, and a comically propagandist piece of anti-Spanish piss-taking. BiB director Gordon Barr has shortened the play a little, mainly by cleverly subsuming the role of the clownish Costard (lover of the much-admired "country wench" Jaquenetta) into that of the servant boy Moth and by doing away entirely with the almost pointlessly peripheral aristocrat Mercade.

Transferring the audience between four outdoor sites around the Botanic Gardens, Barr's modern dress production requires Dan Klarer's inexplicably (but humorously) Texan Constable Dull to perform the role of affable usher. Installed in each of these locations, we are treated to a production which, though abounding with directorial and actorly skill, is characterised by a wonderfully breezy silliness.

The scene in which the King and his noblemen visit the tent of the Princess of France disguised as bearded and fur-hatted Muscovites is suitably ludicrous. However, it must be said, this intended highlight of the main plot has less comic potential than the sub-plot involving the libidinous and preposterously caricatured Spaniard Don Armado (his very name evokes the Spanish Armada, which failed in its attempted invasion of England just a few years before the play was written).

With his beloved Jaquenetta (Tori Burgess) and Moth (Robert Elkin) presented, hilariously, as a pair of northern English neds, Kirk Bage's stupidly moustached Don is played with a delightful daftness. Amidst a generally strong cast, he is matched only by the ever-impressive Alan Steele, who plays the verbose schoolmaster Holofernes as a self-regarding, old-style Scottish teacher, sporting a deerstalker hat and chewing on a pipe.

The play may not be Shakespeare's best, but it has enough laughs to please a willing summer audience. Barr and his cast certainly succeed in squeezing as much comedy out of the piece as they can.

Just how much enduring comedy might be squeezed out of Somerset Maugham's First World War comedy Home And Beauty, directed for Pitlochry Festival Theatre by Richard Baron, is a moot point. I have long held the controversial opinion that Noel Coward (Maugham's natural successor in many ways) is an overrated pretender to Oscar Wilde's crown. Home And Beauty makes me feel similarly about Maugham.

I reckon that Wilde's homosexuality was simply the hook on which the English upper classes hung their outrage when they realised that the great Irish writer was not laughing with them, but, in fact, satirising them mercilessly. By contrast, Maugham and Coward (both gay, both tolerated) wrote plays which were so gentle in their satire that they functioned almost as massage for the idle rich.

Home And Beauty contains a bold and unsentimental representation of a bourgeois love triangle, which is created by the unexpected return of an army officer, hitherto presumed killed in action. The unusual absence of war-related mawkishness in the play was, no doubt, shocking when it was first staged in 1919, but it was far from Wilde's incendiary intent.

Almost 100 years on, the charms of Maugham's comedy of manners have become increasingly discreet. The horrendously vain Victoria (Isla Carter, appropriately detestable) faces a choice between her two, none-too-bright husbands, Major Bill Cardew (Reece Richardson) and Major Frederick Lowndes (Simon Pontin). She opts for the war-profiteering capitalist Leicester Paton (the suitably caddish Alan J Mirren) instead.

By act three, the play has become a reasonable satire of divorce law (with Mark Elstob deliciously cynical as Raham the lawyer), but the drama still feels like a dated museum piece. Whether Pitlochry is ready for the play to end with what Maugham arguably nods towards (a gay relationship between Cardew and Lowndes) is debatable, but it would certainly improve the script.

In any case, no amount of rewriting will ever bring Home And Beauty close to the quality of Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest, which opens at Pitlochry on July 16.