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John Caird’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost favours clarity of language over the play’s incessant wordplay.David Hou

At the Royal Shakespeare Company, directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird collaborated on a couple of the biggest theatrical hits of the 1980s: the mega-musical Les Misérables and David Edgar's nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby. Where are they now?

Well, Nunn is being lambasted in Britain for having cast only white actors in his upcoming production of The Wars of the Roses, a distillation of four of William Shakespeare's history plays. His bizarre excuse – "historical verisimilitude" – has made him a bit of a laughing stock, given the many ways the plays in question play fast and loose with history.

As for Caird, well, the Canadian-born director is at the Stratford Festival, where he's directing the most thoroughly diverse cast of the season in Love's Labour's Lost. At least one of these two theatrical veterans is moving with the times.

Love's Labour's Lost is a comedy with a simple plot. King Ferdinand of Navarre (a sweet Sanjay Talwar) and his three pals Berowne, Longaville and Dumaine begin the play by swearing to spend the next three years in deep study, far from the company of women.

Naturally, within moments of taking this oath, the Princess of France and three attractive attendants named Rosaline, Maria and Katherine arrive on the scene. The only question is which of the men will break their oath first.

Thematically, Love's Labour's Lost is more complex – it's about the limits of linguistic cleverness, and is both a celebration and condemnation of poetry and puns.

One thing that poets have a lot to answer for, historically, is the long equation of fairness with beauty and darkness with ugliness, both spiritual and physical – a practice which has obviously contributed to racism and shadism in English-speaking societies.

Shakespeare, who, of course, wrote 28 sonnets to an unnamed "dark lady," wrestles with this dualism in a number of his works – none more so, however, than Love's Labour's Lost.

Of the more than 700 hundred times the Bard used the word "fair" in his works (that's Stephen Greenblatt's count), 70 can be found in this comedy (that's my count). The play's fascination with "fair" and "dark" and their connotations rises to the surface in a production where three black women and one white women are courted by two white men, a brown man and a black man.

For instance, when the Princess of France (the white actress Ruby Joy, charming) challenges the men who address her as "fair" at various intervals, it makes extra sense given the complexion of her companions here (played by the black actresses Sarah Afful, Ijeoma Emesowum and Tiffany Claire Martin). "'Fair' in 'all hail' is foul, as I conceive," she says.

Then there's the matter of Rosaline, described as having "a light condition in a beauty dark" – and here played by the compelling Afful. Her suitor Berowne (the white actor Mike Shara, trying much too hard to be liked by the audience) argues for her beauty in the face of poetic cliché, saying she was "born to make black fair." "Is ebony like her?" he asks. "O word divine! A wife of such wood were felicity."

While Shakespeare's words resonate differently in this production, and his poetic arguments against poetry gain added weight, Caird only superficiality engages with that shift. The one moment I detected where his production truly became colour-conscious rather than colour-blind comes when Longaville (played by the white actor Andrew Robinson) declares that "Black is the badge of hell, the hue of dungeons and the suit of night," – and his friend Dumaine (played by the black actor Thomas Olajide) is allowed a moment of, very amusing, silent protest.

It's still Berowne, however, who gets to refute him: "Devils soonest tempt, resembling spirits of light."

In a play so questioning of conventional encapsulations of beauty in language and appearance, it's a pity that Caird's designer Patrick Clark has not taken any of the themes to heart. His conventional costuming treats the women as decorative objects and their dresses swallow their bodies from the bosom down. That makes it a lopsided battle when the women compete with the men for laughs. Their scenes are noticeably duller – and I blame their corsets, which are the enemy of comedy.

Tom Rooney, playing the pedant Holofernes, is the funniest in Love's Labour's Lost because of what he does with his entire body, not just how he delivers his lines. He acts as much with his legs – which suddenly become rubbery with lust, or rigid with wounded pride – as anything.

Rooney, this Stratford season's MVP, shines in every moment here – and elevates the performances of those around him in the supporting cast through his hilarious reactions to them. The scenes with secondary characters such as the Spanish braggart Armado (Juan Chioran), clown Costard (Josue Laboucane) and young page Moth (Gabriel Long) are fairly tedious without him. There's much forced flouncing.

Love's Labour's Lost is a difficult play to love – and, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note the appeal of this early comedy of Shakespeare's is always lost on me. I find it laborious in its incessant wordplay.

Perhaps trying to make up for that, Caird's production favours clarity of language above all else – but the end result feels starchy and lacking in subtlety, the talented actors in it ironed flat. His casting practices may be modern, but the rest of his approach to Shakespeare is old-fashioned.

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