Four young noblemen of Navarre foreswear the company of females until confronted by an appealing quartet of Aquitainian girls on a state visit.
Shakespeare’s most word-intoxicated comedy virtually disappeared after a Christmas one-night stand in 1605. But come the 20th-century obsession with directors’ theatre, the play was rediscovered as an opportunity for clever business and eye-catching stagecraft.
Now, inspired by Kingston’s new Elizabethan-style playhouse, Peter Hall goes back to basics with a three-hour, fast-flowing production in 16th-century costume, his actors breezing on to a bare stage to deliver ancient gags and wordplay, with minimal character development or plot continuity.
If words delivered at speed is the aim, then the Rose is a tricky place to hear them. Chunks of chuckle-worthy stuff often passed by with barely a murmur from the surrounding audience, perhaps mesmerised by the soporific effect of verse and prose spoken for rhythmic textual effect as much as meaning.
Best of the evening comes from Peter Bowles as a droll Don Armado, leading the company as the star name, with some fine interplay between Finbar Lynch and Susie Trayling attractively paired as a bristly-chinned Berowne and his pert Rosaline, Greg Haiste as a Costard with funny voices, and a lovely cameo from Ella Smith as a plump Jaquenetta.
Other crowd-pleasing moments include the four boys disguised as Muscovite visitors duly getting their comeuppance from their female opposites. And the production finally comes into its own with a superbly melancholy musical closure scored by composer Mick Sands and led in fine voice by William Chubb as Holofernes.