At War With Love

Ambitious in its intentions, At War With Love uses a selection of thirty-two of William Shakespeare’s sonnets to form a narrative set against the backdrop of the First World War. What with the continuation of World War One commemorations taking place in this centenary anniversary year of the Battle of the Somme, tied to the events marking the four hundredth year since Shakespeare’s death, it would appear that the piece has chanced upon the perfect time to tie these two areas of literary and historical significance together.

A disappointing presentation of a decent idea

In itself, the concept is not necessarily a bad one. And indeed, there is merit in reformulating and re-presenting existing texts to draw out some new shades of meaning. The application of Shakespearean texts to more modern times and places has a respected and well-established history in the theatre. The problems in this particular performance are rather more fundamental.

Opening with Sonnet 30, an apt choice, with its themes of remembrance of friends lost and the consolation that a lover might bring, the performance seems to begin slowly. Billed as a ‘strongly physical production’, the initial elements of physicality lack clear definition and intention, and accordingly appear somewhat half-hearted, struggling on this occasion to really add value to the language. Indeed, rather than communicating through movement, the physicality of much of the piece consists of repetitive hugs, lifts, touches and kisses – fairly arbitrary gesturing which at times detracts from Shakespeare’s grand verse due to its lack of depth and conviction.

This is a piece which, first and foremost, should celebrate the writing of the poet, and leaving aside the physical movement, this is the greatest disappointment. Despite clearly having taken much work to structure the piece, the meanings and nuances of the words themselves all too often fail to shine through in performance. In the condensed form of the fourteen-line sonnet, each word is an artefact, but here the delivery shows little variety of intonation – indeed, the very similar performances of the various sonnets leads to something of a destruction of their differences, as the staging and physicality fails to take account of their nature as individual pieces with characters of their own.

Adding into the mix a lack of detail in unison movement sequences, a use of audible breath more at home in the rehearsal room, stultifying background music affecting the piece’s pace, words drowned out by music during battle episodes and some abrupt technical transitions, it seems as though the piece does ‘remember not the hand that writ it’ (Sonnet 71). Indeed, the experience was too much for some, and the irony of seeing at least three people snoozing during the line ‘keep open heavy eyelids to the weary night’ (Sonnet 61) was not lost. A disappointing presentation of a decent idea – if you want to fall in love with Shakespeare, perhaps look elsewhere.  

Reviews by Joshua Clarke

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The Blurb

At War With Love sets Shakespeare’s Sonnets against the turbulent backdrop of war. This strongly physical production explores the depths of their themes of love, passion, jealousy, loss, and regret. An original, beautifully poignant piece, it brings to life the rich and emotive language of some of Shakespeare’s greatest work. '...a memorable evening in the theatre. It reminded me why a 400 year old playwright remains the ultimate commentator on the human condition' (Karen Draisey, CIAO). 'Stunning' (Nicola Salmon, RSC Dell).

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