Much was made during last night’s live broadcast of the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona of the fact that it has been in the region of forty-five years since the play last made it onto the main stage at Stratford. One of the great things about the current trundle through the canon is that it insists on every play getting a full-scale outing. Yet this can always lead to overstatement of a ‘rediscovery’ – after all, the play has a reasonably rich history in the Swan (in fact, it was the first play I saw there), and Shakespeare in Love has ensured a much wider recognition of at least some parts of the play than in previous decades. Nonetheless, anxiety over the relatively unknown play was evident in a pre-performance video that saw director Simon Godwin explain pretty much all of the performance decisions and approaches taken in the production, leaving me slightly tempted to sidle out and get an early night before the show even started.
The emphasis throughout both introduction and production was on the play as youthful, both in its writing (making the usual apologies for the play’s quality based on Shakespeare’s age) and in its depiction of exuberance, emotion and excess. A game cast offered a contemporary romp, prioritising wit and extreme feeling over the play’s darker edges. The decision makes sense, particularly in the case of the two male lovers. Michael Marcus’s Valentine and Mark Arends’s Proteus started weakly, giving a somewhat staccato and monotonous delivery of the play’s complex exchange of puns and wordplay, but developed throughout the course of the production to become slightly exaggerated (and rightly so) parodies of youthful suffering. Arends in particular veered wonderfully between performed melancholy and desperate violence, gleeful villainy and forlorn lovesickness. The production had its cake and ate it too in its simultaneous celebration and teasing of what it means to be young and in love.
As such, this was the lightest of productions. Beginning in a summery pavement cafe, the broadcast tackled head-on the problem of live-streaming pre-show business by integrating presenter Suzy Klein into the cafe environment, being offered ice-cream by the cast and joining in the repartee between characters and live audience, led by Martin Bassindale’s energetic Speed. From this lazy but communal setting, in which lovers exchanged wistful glances between tables, the production moved to a nightclub-like Milan with cocktails and whiskey constantly on hand and live dance music. The noisy, claustrophobic environment of the latter led to an aspect of sordid surveillance not too dissimilar to the Swan’s White Devil. Without wishing to be ungenerous, however, the early Milan scenes were blighted by a sound difficulty on the audio feed that left a painful high-pitched whine in the background for several minutes, which made these scenes near-unwatchable for me.
The lightness of the production was exemplified by Bassindale’s Speed, engaging in banter with the audience (normally at Valentine’s bewildered and cross expense), and Roger Morlidge’s partnership with Mossup in the Launce and Crab scenes. Crab, as usual, had little to do other than stand on the stage and look cute, but Morlidge played well off the dog’s rather sad whimpering, particularly during the crying scenes. A dog, of course, needs to do nothing but be a dog to earn its ovations, and Mossup was particularly adorable, bushy-faced and impassive while Launce (in a surprisingly moving performance) berated him for his dispassionate treatment of his own grief. More obvious hilarity came from Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s Etonian dolt, Turio. He wooed Silvia himself through song, turning a slow guitar-led ballad into a full-on, screamed rock anthem where his bunch of roses became a windmill guitar and then a microphone, he lost in the ‘brilliance’ of his own performance to the bemusement of the others. A lovely bit of camerawork allowed this scene to be viewed partly from the downstage point of view of Julia and Molly Gromadzki’s Host.
The women were treated with similar lightness. Pearl Chanda was a likeable Julia, entertainingly impulsive in tearing up her letter and then complaining that no-0ne stopped her, and always laughing in her early appearances, accompanied by Leigh Quinn’s bolshy, pushy and demonstrative Lucetta. Lucetta in particular was unrestrained with the physical cuing of sexual innuendo, even going so far as to grope and straddle her mistress, though she was more interesting in the subtler winks as she was left in charge of Julia’s reputation. One hopes that Chanda will go on to play Portia and other cross-dressed heroines in future productions, as she made for a fascinating Sebastian, calm and unassuming in male costume but offering a hugely effective, casual delivery of the giveaway lines relating ‘his’ own person to that of Julia. Sarah Macrae was a confident, fashionable Silvia, immaculately dressed, who dominated her interactions with the play’s men and left them
Even the play’s darker edges were muted. The forest was staged stunningly, an overhead canopy lit from above casting shadowy leaves across a darkened stage. As Speed and Valentine arrived, they were caught in a cargo net hoisted immediately several feet above the stage in a genuinely thrilling moment of physical stage action. However, the outlaws were played straightforwardly comic, their light aggression always tempered by ridiculous demands and leering mumblings. Youssef Kerkour (always one of the best-spoken cast members in any production he’s in) offered initially to be an intimidating Sir Eglamour, slipping money threatening in the pockets of Silvia’s guard to get rid of him before taking up a staunch position himself, but revealed himself quickly to be a prankster, disguising himself as a monk to surprise Silvia and giggling in her company. The only really sustained moment of threat came from Jonny Glynn’s powerful Duke of Milan. His power was unquestioned as he beckoned Valentine to join him, and as he finally exposed Valentine’s trickery he threw the grovelling young man to the floor. Moments such as this began to paint a generational conflict within the play, the (mis)adventures of the young men contextualised within the more potent strength of the older generation. When the Duke was brought on stage at the play’s end, bound and beaten to receive judgement from Valentine, a clear reversal of fortunes was set up that suggested a deeper reading of the play as a coming-of-age for Valentine, growing up from his immature musings to a leadership role.
Sadly, the play’s most interesting issues were rather skated over. Finally abandoned together in the wood, Macrae and Arends were excellent as they faced off against one another, Arends clutching at his head as Proteus was denied and Macrae, now in casual clothes as the fleeing Silvia, screaming and holding a knife in defence as she rejected the villain. However, the attempted rape lasted only a second before Valentine emerged and grabbed his enemy, meaning that the brutality of his threat barely registered. While Valentine’s repeated dunking of Proteus’s head into a water barrel made for an effective visual image, it rather made nonsense of his conversion, brought about by more violence rather than words and recognition. And Valentine’s offer of Silvia to Proteus received no apparent response at all from Silvia and only a faintness from Julia, again leaving this important moment untouched. Silvia and Valentine left the stage hand in hand with no apparent difficulty. While there’s nothing wrong with reading the play as a straightforward comedy, it seems something of a waste not to allow this pivotal moment – the yielding of rights in a woman – to be explored in any way, especially given a near- contemporary setting and the clear problems this poses. Instead, rather tamely, any ambiguity was deferred to the very end, with a blackout as Julia and Proteus approached one another. However, the contrition was so entire and his transgressions so relatively downplayed that there seemed precious little ambiguity here at all.
With that said, some of the subtleties of the approach worked within the light context. Proteus’s removal of Julia’s ring drew an audible gasp from the audience around me, suggesting to me that the scale of transgression in this production was less interested in debating sexual violence and misogyny and more invested in the more banal, youthful issues of broken faith. While it would have been nice to see these issues raised more openly at the play’s conclusion, the relative lightness of the transgressions was in keeping with the tone elsewhere.
It’s a pleasure to see Two Gentlemen back on the main stage and accorded some proper time and attention. My worry, with the lesser-performed plays, is that their rare moment in the sun during this five-year project will lead to relatively safe, crowd-pleasing productions rather than ones that go further in interrogating the issues they present, and I hope that isn’t the case. For those who haven’t seen the play before, this will undoubtedly have been an excellent production, efficiently captured for the screen and making good sense of the central machinations. I’ll look to productions like those of Two Gents, however, for more incisive appropriation of the play’s politics on the contemporary stage.