If you know a few Shakespeare plays, you certainly know Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and maybe a few of the history plays. Some of the comedies are well known: Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And everyone knows Romeo and Juliet.
But in the canon, there are a number of plays that are rarely performed, and that most people are unfamiliar with. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of these. The Royal Shakespeare Company has not performed this play on its main stage in 45 years, and I attended the opening night of the current production in Stratford-upon-Avon.
I admit going to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last night with a bit of trepidation. I only know this play from the BBC’s forgettable television production of the 1980s. The Guardian recently ran an article discussing Why Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona is as flawed as it is fascinating, and the play certainly has its weaknesses.
The Two Gents has one of those convoluted love stories that show up in some of Shakespeare’s comedies: two friends fall in love with the same woman but one has already sworn his love to another woman, and the second is not considered good enough for her. There is love, betrayal, banishment, and cross-dressing.
Valentine travels to Milan to see more of the world. He wants his friend Proteus to travel with him, but Proteus is in love with Julia and doesn’t want to leave. Proteus’ father finally convinces him to travel to Milan, and he departs from Julia tearfully.
(Photos: Simon Annand, for The RSC.)
When Proteus arrives in Milan, he finds that Valentine is in love with Silvia, the daughter of the Duke, but she is promised to Turio. Proteus instantly falls in love with Julia, and this sets up the plot of the two friends vying for the same woman. Valentine is eventually banished from Milan, and Proteus declares his love to Sylvia.
Julia decides to go to Milan to seek out Proteus, but does so disguised as a young man, Sebastian. He eventually takes her into his service as a page, and sends her to Sylvia to present her with a ring; the same ring that Julia had given Proteus when they parted company.
Proteus had told Silvia that Valentine was dead, but she was not convinced, and set off to find him. Valentine had actually been captured by some outlaws, and became their leader. The outlaws capture Sylvia, then encounter Proteus and Julia — still in the disguise of a young man — and take them to Valentine. After a bit of confusion and some fighting, they sort things out, and the two couples end up together, planning to be married.
One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, the Two Gentlemen of Verona does not feature the exquisite language we know in Shakespeare’s later plays, and is, at times, a bit clunky. Considered to be one of his weakest plays, it is often ignored, and the long hiatus in productions by the Royal Shakespeare Company has only been interrupted because they are in the process of performing all of Shakespeare’s plays from the First Folio. If you look at the main page of the RSC’s website, this play is barely mentioned; there is a very small graphic talking about a broadcast to schools, but unless you click the “What’s On” link you might not even know that it’s being performed. It’s almost as if they’re embarrassed to be putting on this play.
Well, they certainly shouldn’t be. From beginning to end, the performance I saw last night was scintillating. Sure, this is not Shakespeare’s finest play, the language is not as good as his best works, but this was a delightful night of theater performed by a cast that was clearly enjoying themselves.
The play began before it started; upon entering the theater, spectators saw a set like an outdoor café in Italy with the actors milling around, sitting at the tables, talking to each other. Panthino – played by Simon Yadoo – went out into the audience and fetched people, singly and in pairs, to bring them up on stage and walk them to the back to get some ice cream. This was a nice touch; it made me feel as a spectator — sitting in the first row on the side of the stage — as though the audience was part of the experience.
The first few minutes felt a bit strained; it was opening night, what the English call “press night.” It seems that here in the UK critics all come on the same evening, rather than showing up when they want to review a play. This probably causes a fair amount of stress among the performers, knowing that this night is the one by which their production will be judged.
But once things got moving, they didn’t stop. The play was fast-paced, and the comic timing among the cast was impeccable. The laughter in the audience showed that the comedy worked very well. Sure, there were some jokes that didn’t work, because of the old language, but I could tell that the cast truly believed in this play, and their earnestness was infectious.
One set piece that literally brought the house down was when Turio, accompanied by a gaggle of musicians — including Proteus — went to serenade Sylvia. Nicholas Gerard-Martin who played this character as a bumbling yokel sang a song a bit like a Barry Manilow wannabe at the Eurovision song contest. The applause he received after singing this song was recognition of how good his campy performance as a singer was, but also how enjoyable to play was up to that point.
Another enjoyable part of the play that was the scenes when Launce came on stage with Crab, a dog, played by Mossup. Launce’s witty words were accompanied by Crab’s surprisingly appropriate expressions, and the audience was heard to say “Awww…” as the dog nearly stole the first scene he appeared in. (It’s too bad that Shakespeare didn’t write any plays with kitties; my cat Titus would be great on stage.)
In the more dramatic moments, the audience hung on the actors’ every word. The soliloquies gave several of the young actors to show off their individual talents. The final scene, which takes place in a dark forest, contains a great deal of violence and tension, but none of it felt contrived. Slightly at odds with the rest of the play, this long scene resolves the play through a contrast in the violence between Proteus and Valentine, and Proteus’ threat of raping Sylvia.
There are no weak actors in the young cast of this play. Mark Arends as Proteus and Michael Marcus as Valentine are a fine pair of friends. Roger Morlidge as Launce was nearly Falstaffian in his wit. And the women – Pearl Chanda as Julia and Sarah MacRae as Silvia – were delightful. Leigh Quinn as Lucetta shone, with her slightly hammy attitude, though I had a bit of difficulty understanding her fast-spoken Northern accent. And Martin Bassindale as Speed was witty and exuberant, notably in a scene with Launce. Since this is a play without a star, the company shone as a company, with a cohesion that was evident throughout.
The direction and staging of this play were excellent. There were a number of sets, from the Italian café to the Duke’s house in Milan; from a disco to the dark, camouflaged forest, providing a great deal of variety in the settings. The lights were a bit annoying, however. Sitting on the side of the stage, I was blinded during some scenes by three bright banks of lights on the other side, one at each level of the theater. I’ve sat in that location for several plays in the theater, and never noticed the lights to be a bother.
The play clocks in at about 2:20, plus a 20-minute intermission. I was starting to get antsy near the end of the first part, and, when I checked the time, I saw that it had lasted 1:25. The second part was therefore quite short, and the time flew by.
As I said earlier, the RSC seems to be a bit embarrassed about putting on this play. The play’s short run — only seven weeks, followed by a week in Newcastle — suggests that they didn’t think that this play would sell very well. Fortunately, it will be filmed and broadcast to cinemas on September 3, and subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Thinking back after the performance was over, I compared it in my mind to the other two plays currently at the Royal Shakespeare Theater. I very much enjoyed Henry IV part 1 and Henry IV part 2, but each of those plays had their good moments and some longeurs. Last night, after seeing The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I realized that there was nothing boring about this play, and I enjoyed it from start to finish. It’s interesting that, of the eight plays I’ve seen in the past year and a half at the RSC, the two that are considered to be “weak” plays – this one and Titus Andronicus – have turned out to be among the best productions. Which makes me wonder; are they weak plays, or have they just been weakly produced?
Kudos to director Simon Godwin, and to the entire cast, for making The Two Gentlement of Verona a delightful evening of theater.