Has it really been six years since public television began the epic effort to present all of Shakespeare's plays? It has, and No. 37 -- the end, the last, the omega of the series -- runs tonight (on WETA-Channel 26 and Maryland Public Television from 9 to 11 p.m.), a pretty production of "Love's Labour's Lost."
It is, alas, one of Shakespeare's sillier plays. And in director Elijah Moshinsky's production, archness and artificiality swamp whatever irony or poignance might be brought out. At times the band of wellborn would-be lovers whose badinage makes up the plot seem like nothing so much as a group of preppies, affected and superior and amusing themselves with witticisms coined at other people's expense.
The play is set in the mythical court of Navarre, where the young King Ferdinand has convinced several pals to join him in a rigorous three-year regimen of academic study and celibacy. To encourage this idealistic program, Ferdinand has decreed that contact with women is unlawful.
But ho! The princess of France and her three lovely handmaidens arrive with a diplomatic message. The king and his cohorts are smitten with them, and the injunction against trafficking with the opposite sex starts breaking down with misdelivered love notes, disguises and declarations.
Ultimately -- in this production at least -- the men are revealed as pompous romantics and the women as wily and vain. At the princess' behest, the suitors are rejected for a year, during which they must live exemplary lives of service (one is told he must work with the dying and make them smile).
But language dominates this play far more than plot. It is conceivable that Noel Coward was inspired by it, as there are many long (occasionally interminable) exchanges whose main purpose is to display wit. In one scene, the women are laughing riotously at a letter being read aloud, but the source of amusement is not readily apparent. There is also a considerable amount of purple poetry, which seems to come spewing out of the actors' mouths like ticker tape. You can almost see the iambs piling up on the stage, ankle deep.
Moshinsky used the paintings of Watteau as his visual key for the production, and there is a sense of idyllic beauty in this elegant production. Sometimes it is exaggerated, as in the overdone eye makeup on Mike Gwilym, who plays the appealing Berowne, one of Ferdinand's inner circle. The women were evidently cast to convey intelligence and superiority. Maureen Lipman as the princess has an unfortunate overbite, but a cool and regal appeal. Jenny Agutter as Rosaline is equally refined and as wry and condescending as the worst coed.
But it is in the smaller parts that the acting shines, notably David Warner's foppish Don Armado. He is masterful in this silly part; every detail is controlled. Likewise John Wells, who plays the tiny role of a tutor, Holofernes, has a gloriously funny scene in which he pontificates on the pronunciation of various words.
"Love's Labour's Lost" is not labor in vain, merely a minor piece of the Shakespearean tapestry. But "The Shakespeare Plays," and those who made the series possible -- Exxon Corp., Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., Morgan Guaranty Trust Co., Time-Life television and BBC-TV -- should all be saluted. The general standard of these works has been high, and for that we, and the Bard, can be grateful.