Theater Review: The Two Noble Kinsmen, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of The Two Noble Kinsmen hasn’t gotten much love. Reviews have been poor, and according to some who have seen the play, attendance hasn’t been brilliant. This late collaborative work by Shakespeare and John Fletcher is certainly not the brightest star in the firmament of theater, but it has a lot going for it.

I finally got to see the production last night. I had bought two sets of tickets when they went on sale – as I do for all the Shakespeare plays at the RSC – but relinquished mine the first time around, back in August, when my partner’s sister came to visit. My partner and her sister returned home that night with long faces, not having enjoyed the play at all. Add to that the poor reviews of the play, and I went to the theater last night with much apprehension.

The Two Noble Kinsmen is playing in the Swan Theatre, the smaller of the RSC’s two theaters, which is mostly used for plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, as well as for some more recent works. I’ve seen plays by Marlowe, Jonson, and similar authors of the period, as well as a contemporary adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and others. When attending plays in the Swan, I’m often aware that the plays themselves may not be the best; I’m thinking of the older ones, not the modern works. Such is the case with The Two Noble Kinsmen. If the RSC had felt it was up to the standard of Shakespeare’s other works, they would have presented it in the main theater.

With all this out of the way, I have to say I very much enjoyed the performance. My mental bar for this production was set fairly low, and I was ready to disappointed.

There are lots of problems with the production, and with the text; it’s not the most interesting of Shakespeare’s plots, but you can ignore that if the production is good enough. To begin with, Blanche McIntyre’s choices for this production are sometimes confounding. The wardrobe in particular looks like they just fished out some old costumes at random and stitched them up to fit the actors. There was no coherence to them at all: some actors were in more-or-less modern dress, others had hats that looked like they came from Flash Gordon, and there was a fair amount of leather. The set was also problematic. There were low concrete walls on each side of the stage, and on much of the front of the stage, and there was a concrete covered staircase at the back, with some small concrete walls at its sides. The whole thing looked a bit Ballardian. One innovative element of the set was the grilles that descended to the edges of the stage to simulate the jail cell where Arcite and Palamon are held for a time.

(Photos: Donald Cooper for the RSC.)

After a confusing opening scene, where three queens descend to the stage on ropes to ask that their husbands’ deaths be avenged (I think; I really couldn’t understand much of what was said, nay, yelled, in that scene), we switch to a battle scene, then one where Arcite and Palamon are imprisoned. And here’s where it gets good. The chemistry between Jamie Wilkes and James Corrigan was wonderful. Both of these actors are familiar faces, having been in productions I’ve seen since living in the area. Wilkes was in Oppenheimer and The Shoemaker’s Holiday, and Corrigan appeared in The Merchant of Venice and Othello. Their on-again, off-again relationship is the centerpiece of the play. When they are imprisoned, they both spy Emilia (brilliantly played by Frances McNamee, who, like much of the cast, is also in The Rover at the Swan this year), and fall in love with her, and end up fighting for her love.

A sub-plot involves the jailer’s daughter played by Danusia Samal. She falls in love with Palamon, and, when he ignores her after she frees him from prison, she drifts into Ophelia-like madness. Samal’s performance is the other light of the evening, as she slowly changes from a prim young woman to a shell of herself, craving love, which she only finds at the end through some trickery.

The Morris dancing bit could go, as could the wacky costumes and attitudes of the actors, but if you ignore those parts, and just focus on the two love plots, it’s really a moving play. Much of the text is, well, Fletcher, but the moments that shine do contain some lines worthy of Shakespeare. At nearly 2:40, it’s a bit long, and it would have been beneficial to cut some fat (though I’m not familiar enough with the text to know if anything was cut). And the bit with the buzzsaw? If you’re not going to use it, don’t bring it on stage. That was just sophomoric.

In the end, this was an enjoyable play, with an opportunity to see a “rarely-performed” Shakespeare work (and it’s obvious why it’s not performed more often), with a very good cast. Alternating with The Rover (which I saw in the summer, but didn’t review), this cast is most likely enjoying themselves. It’s a shame that the production was hindered by such simple things as incoherent wardrobe and overall logic, but if you have a chance to see this before it ends in February, I’d go for it.

Oh, and The Rover? It’s not a great play, but it’s one of the most boisterous productions I’ve seen at the RSC. I don’t remember much about it, but I had good time.

Note: one possibility for the difference between my experience and my partner’s is that the play has evolved, and perhaps changed since the early days. We generally agree on the quality of the productions we see, and given all the negative reviews of this play, the only logical explanation is that changes were made after the early performances because of the many negative reviews.