STRATFORD — You don’t have to be familiar with the chronology of William Shakespeare’s plays to sense that Love’s Labour’s Lost is an early effort. It’s obviously the work of a young playwright anxiously strutting his stuff.

Brimming with ‘poetry, wit and invention,’ Shakespeare negotiates the forest of language, occasionally losing his way, as he edges along the winding path towards dramatic mastery.

Paradoxically, it takes a mature vision not to mistake the forest of language for the artifice of trees. And we have that in veteran director John Caird, who in his Stratford Festival debut, is celebrating something of a homecoming.

The internationally acclaimed director, best known for the original productions of Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables, was born in Edmonton and spent his childhood in Montreal before moving to England at 11 years of age. A director and writer of plays, musical theatre and opera, he’s one of Britain’s most esteemed directors, with a prestigious body of work at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, not to mention around the world, to his credit.

The table is prepared for this elegant production at the Festival Theatre with Patrick Clark’s set and Michael Walton’s lighting. The trees, balcony and patterned windows, warmed by dappled sunlight, create a visual metaphor of spring and the young love associated with the season.

As Caird points out in his program notes, Love’s Labour Lost is one of only three works, including A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and The Tempest, to spring solely from Shakespeare’s imagination without reference to other sources.

The story is simple. The King of Navarre and a trio of his testosterone-driven courtiers sign an oath to forsake the company of women for three years, during which they will devote themselves to fasting, praying and studying. Before the ink dries on their declaration, the fetching Princess of France arrives on a diplomatic mission, accompanied by three attractive attending ladies. Meanwhile the Spanish nobleman Don Armado has become infatuated with a country maid, otherwise identified as a “base wench.”

This leads to a riot of deception and mockery, mix-ups and masquerades until very near play’s end when Lord Mercade arrives to inform the Princess that her father has died. The artifice of fantasy is shattered by the reality of mortality.

Mike Shara takes another step forward as one of the festival’s most irresistible leading men in the role of Berowne, a character that anticipates such Shakespearean heroes as Lysander in the aforementioned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention Romeo and Richard II, even elements of Hamlet — according to Caird in his notes.

Whether he’s raising a sceptical eyebrow, talking directly to the audience or revealing true feeling in a speech about the fairer sex, the charmingly charismatic Shara has theatregoers eating out of his hand.

The other veteran who anchors the production with flare is Juan Chioran as Don Armado. Chioran carries with him the remnants of his Don Quixote in the 1998 festival production of Man of La Mancha. Chioran plays the ‘child of fancy’ as a preening love-sick peacock with a tendency to warble.

Brad Rudy is a wonderfully droll, dullish Dull, Brian Tree does good work as the curate Nathaniel, a character equivalent of biting into a lemon, and the trigger-tongued Tom Rooney is superb as the language-addled schoolmaster Holofernes.

Special note must be made of Gabriel Long as Don Armado’s pint-sized page Moth. I can’t recall a young actor commanding such attention in a Shakespearean production in the more than three decades I’ve been reviewing the festival.

The female characters, including Ruby Joy as the Princess, support the production effectively but they are never more than foils for the young men who hold a mirror up to nature, only to see themselves.

As I was driving home to Waterloo after enjoying the production that draws the curtain on this season’s Festival Theatre offerings, I reflected on what I took away from Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Viewed backwards from the final scene, after death throws a cold blanket over the fever of infatuation, it’s obvious Shakespeare views love as more than talking the talk — after all, the romantic comedy rises and falls on the artifice of love. True love, in contrast, is about walking the walk. It is not love for love’s sake, but instead, is the blossom that grows from the seed of loss, regret and sorrow.

Love’s Labour’s Lost continues through October 9 at the Festival Theatre.Tickets are available at 1-800-567-1600 or online at  

(Featured image of Mike Shara was taken by photographer Sean Dixon)