Two Gentlemen of Verona

Wed 2nd – Sat 5th May 2012

reviews

Rebecca Loxton

at 09:51 on 3rd May 2012

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1disagrees

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s first plays and the play he should never have written, if one is to believe the critics. For this reason, explains the director in the programme, she was subjected to constant questions regarding her motivations for choosing the play. In my opinion, her choice is a justified one; the script has everything one would expect from an offering from the Bard: jealously, star-crossed lovers, violence, misunderstandings and mistaken identity.

The play itself is not at fault. The decision the director took that seems strange, however, is to update the play so that it takes place in early twentieth-century New York. The decision itself is not the misguided one: plenty of classic plays are of course re-adapted, Shakespeare’s lines being delivered against the backdrop of a recognisable situation, characters in modern-day dress. And yet somehow, in this play, the adaptation does not quite work. The problem is that there are only isolated references to the fact the play is taking place in 1920s New York, such as the contemporary costumes of the characters and the interlude of jazz music. The play also opens with a girl in Jazz Age dress delivering a rendition of New York, New York. At this point, there is no doubt where the play is set; sadly, following this, the impression begins to fade and we are left with only vague reminders of the modern setting of this Elizabethan drama.

Also, the adaptation of a play to a specific era requires a great effort in terms of attention to detail and even the smallest slip-up can shatter the illusion. In this case, for example, Sylvia wears silk gloves and pauses, cigarette between figures, as suitors fight over who will provide her with a lighter. And yet the image jars: would she not have smoked a cigarette placed in a long, elegant holder? Is this Shakespeare, the Jazz Age, or the twenty-first century?

Despite this criticism, the play is on the whole very well acted, Shakespeare’s lines delivered effortlessly by this student cast. The eponymous protagonists, played by Tim Gibson and Ed Seabright, offer particularly accomplished performances. The audience is kept in stitches throughout this rendition of one of Shakespeare’s most entertaining comedies and despite the problems regarding adaptation, 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' is an entertaining piece.

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Daniel Malcolm

at 10:10 on 3rd May 2012

2agrees

0disagrees

This production revels good-humouredly in Shakespeare's dirty laundry for so long, but in the end the director hangs him and his script out to dry. The violence of the rape does violence to the otherwise Shakespearean-spirit of the comedy.

The are so many gags in this play it's hard not to choke at times. Shakespeare misses no excuse for a pun, taking to pieces and doing DIY on the most ordinary words: 'Speed: I understand thee not. Launce: ....my staff understands me. Speed: It stands but under thee'. Such a pun-fest is often met with groans or bemused silence. But for all his nimbleness, there's little danger of lagging behind Speed. In fact all the actors navigate the assault-course of Shakespearean humour (its heights and its scatalogical depths) with incredible adeptness, always sensitive in their pace and intonation to their dull-witted 21st-century audience, but never condescendingly obvious. And their visibly eye-twinkling delight is a better communicator even than their clear articulation.

The quickest wit of the lot is Valentine's servant, Speed (Barney Iley-Williamson), who by the end is really compering the performance. Somehow he combined the air of Jeeves-ian omniscience with the servile-cunning of a Roman slave. A deliciously ironic tone and a delicately-poised finger make their own sense of timing - it wasn't long before the mere raising of the finger had audiences laughing in anticipation. What makes the repartee between him and Valentine so fun is the bonhomie of the bond-servant-bond, even when Speed is clutching his head in disbelief at his master's block-headed stupidity. Their intimacy is balanced nicely by the gossipy-girliness of the sun-bathing Julia and her servant Lucetta.

Don't get the impression that there's only one type of humour. There's the one-man-and-his-dog show from Launce, offering his embittered draughts of sarcasm as a mawkish antedote to the testosterone-fuelled jousting of the other men. And if you enjoy toff-bashing class jokes - there is plenty of fun had at the expense of the boatered Thurio, whose faltering lisp and agile eyebrows. Of all the characters he perhaps fits best into the 1930s setting - its mood set by the honky-tonky piano and by the charming of a puppet-theatre-cum-travelling-road-show (at times a slap-stick act all by itself: by the end the cut out stars were falling from the sky to the cheers of the audience.)

But with the gangsters, and the popular music also came sexual liberation. In the programme, the director, Kate O'Connor, calls Two Gents Shakespeare's most chauvinist play; her playful adaption of the duke into a sex-power-oozing Jazz-age "yummy-mummy" (Katie Ebney-Landy), does something to redress this - though it does put a Lesbian spin on some of her lines - which may confuse those not au fait with the original. But her most controversial change is a textual intervention at the end. Obviously feeling that the happy union of Proteus and Julia followed indecently soon upon Proteus' attempted rape, she has the play end with Julia shooting Proteus a hateful glance, as she runs off stage.

In fact the rape, or at least its vigour, was at the director's discretion. And the decision to sensationalise Proteus' forceful approach into an act of desperate theatre-shaking violence itself creates the emotional impasse that O'Connor intervenes to remedy. And even before the rape, with what leeway it has, this production villainizes the second gentleman Proteus. At times Proteus' manner is distracted, at times his glassy gaze wanders, but in the dilemma of his soliloquies, he doesn't evince the anguish of a truly tormented soul. Consequently his betrayal of love and friendship seems less passionate incontinence, than remorseless calculating. And if this cynical infidelity doesn't put him quite beyond the pale; if his cruelty to the dear dog, bizarrely named Crab, doesn't have you ringing the RSPCA; the outrageous violence of attempted rape on Silvia makes untenable any rehabilitation at the end of the play. Even the half-hearted reconciliation between Proteus and Valentine that does take place doesn't ring true. For though Proteus hangs his head like a sorry school boy and Valentine pronounces his magnanimous sentiments oh so coolly - what we have just witnessed makes even this begrudging forgiveness unthinkable. At this point then, the script, which up till then had been so humanely plausible, loses touch with the play - and the play with reality. O'Connor's interpretation fails ultimately not just because it censors Shakespeare but because it makes the conclusion of the play unworkable. The razzle-dazzle of the closing number - "New York, New York" - offers little in the way of feel-good compensation for the prenup-reconciliation it replaces. That said, the end of a Shakespearean comedy isn't exactly its punch-line so don't let this belated stumble overshadow the fabulous fun of what comes before.

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