The play centers on Ferdinand, King of Navarre (a rubber-faced Phillip Cumbus), who with three of his best friends, Berowne (the frequently frantic Trystan Gravelle), Longaville (who, in William Mannering's curious performance, seems incredibly clingy and needy), and Dumaine (brought to life with a kind of aristocratic dimwittedness by Jack Farthing), vows to forswear all pleasures in life -- including women -- in order to concentrate on intellectual matters for three years.
Unfortunately, almost as soon as the men -- who often resemble madcap and immature frat boys -- have signed their pledge, the Princess of France (an often overly strident Michelle Terry) and three ladies-in-waiting arrive. The presence of the women means the men's oath is quickly forgotten, and it's only a matter of time before love blossoms and the members of the two quartets are paired off.
Alongside the main plot is a secondary one about the rivalry between the foppish Spanish nobleman Don Armado (played with sweet vapidity, but a distracting accent, by Paul Ready) and the rustic Costard (an utterly delightful Fergal McElherron) over Jaquenetta, a dairymaid (Rhiannon Oliver). Watching the action unfold are Holofernes (Christopher Godwin), a pompous school master, and Nathaniel (Patrick Godfrey),an equally self-important curate.
These latter two characters and their faux Latin and academic bantering generally prove to be the comedy's undoing, but alongside the confusingly antic performances from the principal lovers, their appearances prove to be high points (particularly during the first half of the production which speeds through the first four acts of Shakespeare's play in roughly 90 minutes). Godwin and Godfrey mine the obscure humor making it completely accessible for contemporary audiences.
There are other pleasures to be found here, notably from set and costume designer Jonathn Fensom; his gorgeous scenic design mimics the configuration of the Elizabethan theaters and features handsomely painted drops that evoke the imagery of medieval tapestries.
A host of fine secondary performances are also on view: Siân Robins-Grace imbues one of the Princess' ladies with sparkling intelligence. As Boyet, an attendant on the French retinue, Tom Stuart delivers a variety of verse with clarity and comic flair. And Andrew Vincent's turn as a constable named Dull is anything but. Alas, these characters are too seldom at the fore of this labored production.