Day Two of my “romantic” themed long weekend and it’s on to Shakespeare who wrote any number of comedies and a fair number of tragedies on the subject. Yet I thought I’d avoid all the obvious contenders and opt for what was probably his first play The Two Gentlemen Of Verona as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in a production from 2014. Amazingly that was the first time in 45 years that the RSC had put on a full production; fortunately, the wait was worth it as it does not disappoint. Is it as strong as Hamlet or Lear? Well, of course it isn’t but then how could it be? At the heart of the play is a study of the two opposing and sometimes actually conflicting forces of love and loyalty towards one’s friends.
Valentine and Proteus are, indeed, best buddies. The former is infatuated with Silvia and the latter with Julia. However, when Proteus finally gets to see Silvia, he rapidly transfers his affections to her and jilts Julia though, of course, he’s far too cowardly to actually let on. So far, so teenage boy but Proteus pushes things even further. He shops his former friend to Silvia’s father when the couple plan to elope and harasses his heart’s new desire, despite her being quite clear that she doesn’t want his attentions, even going so far as to initiate moves to rape her. If this is beginning to sound like it’s hardly a comedy, the fun tends to come in the various subplots involving a thwarted upper class twit lover, a gaggle of knowing servants who bandy words and generally show how witty they can be and a group of banished gentlemen outlaws which lends the play shades of the Robin Hood legend. There are rather too many sudden about faces in the last ten minutes of the play but at least Godwin resists having Proteus and Julia going off to live happily after; indeed, we are left wondering how much longer their relationship could or should last.
This rather ragbag approach of let’s put in everything and see what emerges, is given a cohesive structure by Simon Godwin in his first RSC production. He sets the play in a timeless world that both is and isn’t modern day Verona and Milan. The contemporary scene is well and truly alive in the latter and there’s a glorious moment when the catwalk movers and shakers take to the dance floor. Paul Wills’ design with its wooden louvered windows and wrought iron café furniture is pure Italy and in Christopher Shutt’s sound design there is always the sound of distant traffic or a lone Vespa roaring through the streets. The costumes range from chic Italian high fashion with Silvia, particularly, recalling Grace Kelly or Gwyneth Paltrow in The Talented Mr Ripley which is set in much the same milieu. The men are often in sharp suits and colourful blazers. I wasn’t too sure about the Crocs worn by servant Launce but at least they served to promote a funny routine which on paper seems rather mundane.
The cast seem to be having enormous fun and Godwin cast four newcomers as his central quartet who all step up to the mark. Michael Marcus plays a straight bat as hero Valentine while Mark Arends has the more difficult job of the double dealing Proteus; somehow, he makes the psychological journey convincing even if it doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. Sarah MacRae has a haughty grandeur as sought after Silvia and Pearl Chanda doubles nicely as Julia and the page persona she adopts in order to bring Proteus to heel. The rest of the ensemble take on numerous roles among which Leigh Quinn’s chatty waitress Lucetta and Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s nincompoop Thurio stand out. The latter also gives some terrific welly to the key song of the play, “Who Is Silvia?”
Aside from this musical moment The Two Gentlemen Of Verona tends to be famous for two things. Firstly, it is seen as a dry run for many Shakespeare tropes which he later developed more fully. The quartet of confused lovers (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the heroine dressed as a boy (Twelfth Night, etc.), the transformative power of the forest (As You Like It) are all present and correct among many others and the play begins in Verona, scene of his most well-known play about love, Romeo and Juliet. The other well known thing about the play is that it is “the one with the dog”. Naturally he (Mossup) steals the show from under everybody’s noses just by sitting there with a (sorry) hang dog expression. I have only seen the play once before that I can recall (when it was intercut with songs by Gershwin and Porter), so it was good to catch up with it again. Even with its darker moments, the play is an ideal choice for this mid-February season; why even one of the characters is named after the special day.
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