Two Noble Kinsmen
William Shakespeare & John Fletcher
Directed by Blanche McIntyre
Designed by Anne Fleische
Music by Tim Sutton
The Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre, Stratfotd-upon-Avon
Saturday 27th August 2016, matinee
Joe Allen – Mars, Fighter
Sally Bankes – Schoolmistress
Ashley Campbell – Hyperion, boss
James Corrigan – Palamon
Leander Deeny – Mercury / Host/Doctor
Chris Jack – Pirithous
Lena Kaur – Ceres, The Lady
Patrick Knowles – Wooer
Leon Lopez – Jupiter / The Trickster
Paul McEwan – Jailer
Allison McKenzie – Hippolyta, wife of Theseus
Frances McNamee – Emilia
Emma Noakes – Hecate
Danusia Samal – Jailer’s daughter
Gyuri Sarossy – Theseus, Duke of Athens
Eloise Secker – Diana, a goddess
Kellie Shirley – Venus, a goddess
Jamie Wilkes – Arcite
This is a new Shakespeare for me. I think I even managed to skip it when directed to read the Complete Works as a student. I knew that it was based on Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale but then I always found that second only to The Clerk’s Tale in being boring. The RSC, much more intriguingly advertise it as A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Fight Club. The image below shows why.
The RSC has vowed to present all the 36 plays in the First Folio over a few years. This was not in the First Folio so counts as an extra Shakespeare. With The Rover it is being done this year to mark thirty years of The Swan Theatre, where it was an opening production.
The plot will be unfamiliar to most. It was to me. It starts with Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding day in Athens, which we saw in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a busy day. Three queens (rather than Macbeth’s three witches) turn up to petition Theseus to attack King Creon of Thebes who has killed their husbands. Theseus goes to Thebes, wins the battle and captures cousins and friends, Palomon and Arcite, the two noble kinsmen of the title. They’re imprisoned in Athens, but see the beautiful Emilia from the prison window and fall in love with her. She is Hippolyta’s sister. Arcite is released but goes off to the woods to seek Emilia. Arcite discovers there is a contest of games, including wrestling (as in As You Like It) and running. Here it’s just the running. On winning, Arcite is favoured by the Duke Theseus and appointed Emilia’s bodyguard.
In the woods, a group of Rude Mechanicals … sorry, ordinary workmen … are rehearsing a Morris Dance for the wedding of Theseus. They’re presided over by The Schoolmistress, rather than Peter Quince. Perhaps it’s one of the entertainments over which Pyramus and Thisbe was preferred in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first part closes with a terrific dance sequence.
The jailer’s daughter, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Palomon and helps him escape. Like Ophelia in Hamlet, she is driven mad by unrequited love. Her dad, the jailer trys to cure her by convincing her that a previous (un-named) suitor is Paloman.
Out in the woods, Palomon and Arcite meet, and argue over Emilia, rather like Demetrius and Lysander over Helena. Theseus turns up and says they can settle the matter in a tournament. The winner gets Emilia, the loser gets decapitated. Ironically, Arcite wins. Paloman proffers his head for decapitation, then news arrives that Arcite has fallen off his horse and is dying. Paloman gets the girl.
So, yes, it is admittedly a kind of retrospective Bard’s Greatest Hits. The odd thing is that all the most memorable bits, featuring Arcite and Paloman, are attributed to Fletcher. Stanley Wells suggests that it was not a case of an ageing and tired Shakespeare in 1613 / 14, but perhaps concern over more involuted text leading the rest of the company to suggest the injection of fresher and more direct younger writers. As a play, it intrinsically brings up the nursery rhyme:
There was a little girl
who had a little curl
right in the middle of her forehead
when she was good
she was very, very good
but when she was bad
she was HORRID
The bad bits involve the jailer subplot, the Morris Dancers subplot because it’s a pale echo of the Rude Mechanicals, and the use of long monologues towards the end, when we have already discovered that Paloman and Arcite sparkle through dialogue, not monologue. What is really annoying … and this is indisputably Shakespeare … is the throw away ending, as in The Winter’s Tale when reporting replaces exciting action. You might say it’s Greek Tragedy, where the deaths were always reported by a messenger, you might say it was too hard to stage Arcite’s accidental death by falling off the prize horse after his victory, you might say they couldn’t be bothered to write the last scene (Hey, Will! Get on with it! We open at Blackfriars on Tuesday …).
The bad bits have every effort poured on to them to make them interesting and vital in this production. The long complaint by the three queens at the opening wedding is greatly enlivened by two descending on ropes, and one exploding up from a below stage trap. Danusia Samal does better with the jailer’s daughter descent into madness than many more famous actors manage with Ophelia. The subplot where the jailer persuades his daughter’s old suitor to pretend to be Paloman, is made very funny when the suitor (The Wooer) does long speeches at high speed with no pauses for breath, a remarkable feat by Patrick Knowles. However, you know there’s a certain lack of attention by the authors when important characters are simply Wooer, Schoolmistress, Jailer, Jailer’s daughter. The last is a major role, yet they couldn’t be bothered to name her.
The Morris Dancers are done with great vigour. Sally Bankes as the Schoolmistress (replacing Peter Quince) breaks into an operatic pitch in her delivery. It’s a long funny dance, placed just right to introduce the interval leaving you wanting more … but it’s not Pyramus and Thisbe.
Arcite (Jamie Wilkes) and Paloman (James Corrigan) in the forest
The best bits are very, very good. Can I add a third “very” there? Is it Fletcher’s text? Or is it Blanche McIntyre directing two brilliant comedy actors? Probably a bit of both, but Paloman and Arcite as performed here are definitely “double act of the year.” If you have any reservations about the play, believe me, it’s worth every second to see Jamie Wilkes as Arcite and Jamie Corrigan as Paloman. They’re relaxed with the parts, the director has given them good business and props … they carry bricks in their rucksacks to work out. I saw Jamie Wilkes as Dromio in McIntyre’s Comedy of Errors at The Globe, and he has the relaxed feel of the top level Shakespearean comedy actor. Without making anything of it, he inserted “Bless you” mid speech as an audience member gave a mighty sneeze. He did good repartee in character asking an audience member how good he was. Paloman (Jamie Corrigan) is the unlucky one, ending up with his arms manacled to a bar in the forest, trying to eat and drink from the sumptuous hamper delivered by Arcite. Their fight scene bouncing between those wire prison frames was hilarious. The dialogue, arguing over who gets Emilia in the prison relies on “I saw her first!” by Palman. In keeping with the sexual ambiguity themes in the play, they’re cousins and best friends, like getting hot and sweaty together in physical contact sports, and describe their friendship as being “like a wife.” Even when they decide to fight to the death, they do it with hugs and professions of love.
Hippolyta (Allison McKenzie)
Hippolyta (Allison McKenzie) here is, as in myth, The Queen of The Amazons, in spite of few lines, she is a major warlike presence throughout, dismissive of Theseus, who we know from the outset is bisexual, and on lip-kissing terms with his buddy, Pirithous. We see a full on snog right at the start before the wedding. Theseus feels he can go up and kiss any male on the lips by right. I thought he was just homosexual, but later, after the Morris Dancers do their bit, Theseus cheerfully tucks a female one under this arm and strides off. No wonder Hippolyta boils with silent fury. Let’s not forget the first speech in the Dream, Theseus won her by the sword. She’s a powerful man’s trophy wife and she doesn’t like it.
Emilia (Frances McNamee) with supplicant Theban queen. Piritous on the left.
Her sister Emilia (Frances McNamee) gets an Amazon skintight helmet too (i.e. as worn by mythical Amazons rather than purchased from Amazon resellers with free one day delivery). The production is accent blind, and Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail grumbled that Hippolyta is Scots and Emilia is Yorkshire. They’re sisters, after all. Fortunately, both are so good and both accents are very light. The sexual ambiguity is reinforced when Emilia tells her sister how fond she was of Flavinia as a girl. It sounds more than a teenage pash too. Ironically, she is the object of desire for two men, Arcite and Palman, and though sympathetic to their struggles, doesn’t fancy either.
Theseus (Gyuri Sarossy) is mercurial – he gets a ton of costume changes. We found him very good, oblivious to the disdain of any around him.
Theseus (Gyuri Sarossy) with Morris dancers
Two reviews complain about Shakespearean delivery by minor parts and even mumbling. We were in good central seats (and so would the newspaper critics be placed), but I always complain about mumbling, and I detected nary a mumble from anyone. I’m not saying there’s a critic’s ear wax problem, but that more likely, the press reviews and the previews were used to eradicate an initial problem. It wasn’t there this afternoon.
The direction was inventive and original. I’m never sure about Blanche McIntyre, here on her RSC debut. Judging from her Headlong The Seagull and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, both of which I thought poor, then her Globe successes with As You Like It and Comedy of Errors and her tightly directed comedy in the current Noises Off tour, she’s a bit like the nursery rhyme quoted above. But here she was very, very good. One bit that was SO 2013 / 2014 was the excessive amount of gore dripping off actors. I was told that a far more washable stage blood came in about five or six years ago and for a couple of years stages were awash with it. There’s a lot here.
L to R: Hippolyta, Piritous, Theseus and Emilia watch the dance. This photo is taken from centre stage – in fact they had their backs to the stalls. We were directly behind them.
The costumes are in the style dismissed as “dressing up box.” I fully understand the criticism, and appreciate (e.g.) Chichester Festival Theatre’s admirable historical accuracy and consistency in contrast. However, sometimes “dressing up box” works a treat, as it does here. It means modern bits and mixed eras. Theseus strides on in leather trousers, a T-shirt that looks like tattoos, has wings tattooed on his neck and a biker belt with hawk motif, but has a pale green 18th century military coat, with sumptuous lining draped on one shoulder. The one shoulder coat originates with cavalry who wore it so to keep one arm free. But those were waist length, and this is full length. Then he’s off to war in Thebes and turns up in bare legged Greek military gear with a classical Greek kilt. The three queens and the gods are all in fantasy dungeons and dragons (or Game of Thrones) armour combined with modern touches. Palamon and Arcite are basically in bland gym gear. The jailer has an early 20th century suit with collarless shirt. His daughter has a patriotic blue skirt, white blouse and red cardie. Theseus’ boyfriend, Pirithous is all in black with a beautifully embroidered black and silver coat. Yes, it’s varied but it’s NOT a ragbag, and Hippolyta and Emilia always look fantastic, which is the point. They also get several changes. I would have given the jailer a Porridge warden’s uniform though, as his costume is just “inexplicable.”
Arcite (Jamie Wilkes) on the wire cage
There are long raw concrete blocks on the three sides of the thrust stage, and a concrete rear entrance like a football stadium. Some find the brutalist blocks ugly, but to me they invoke the nostalgic and romantic glow of a 1960s university hall of residence. On the other hand, if you are short and in the front row surrounding the thrust stage, I’d say they definitely impede view. The best bit of set design is the wire cages that descend and form the prison, with both Arcite and Paloman “outside” the wires (i.e. on the audience side) addressing each other across the space. We were centre stalls front, and from our viewpoint it looked a contender for set of the year BUT I realised immediately that at both sides, that whole scene, one of the best in the play, left you viewing one of the pair from the back. So, great from square on but I think problematic from either side.
I’d give the very, very good bits (Wilkie and Corrigan, Theseus, Hippolyta and Emilia) five stars, but the intrinsic play has too many flat spots in the writing for that. I can see why three star is the consensus, but getting the base material up to three stars is such a feat, that I’ll award it four.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAY:
Heather Neill, The Stage ****
David Jays, The Sunday Times, ****
Michael Billington, Guardian ***
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph ***
Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard, ***
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times, ***
Michael Davis, What’s On Stage, ***
Quentin Letts, Daily Mail **
Michael Arditti, Sunday Express **
Quentin Letts REALLY didn’t like it and headed his review “Falling standards at the RSC”. We disagreed about the play, but he might have a point about the audience. We watched a small group in the circle place three drinks on the narrow wooden ledge (a great danger to those below), chomped food, then the guy put his bare feet on the empty seat in front of him.
I always wonder about scholarly analysis of Shakespeare’s collaborations. Wikipedia breaks Two Noble Kinsmen down to:
Shakespeare—Act I, scenes 1–3; Act II, scene 1; Act III, scene 1; Act V, scene 1, lines 34-173, and scenes 3 and 4.
Fletcher—Prologue; Act II, scenes 2–6; Act III, scenes 2–6; Act IV, scenes 1 and 3; Act V, scene 1, lines 1–33, and scene 2; Epilogue
Uncertain—Act I, scenes 4 and 5; Act IV, scene 2
Others sum it up with Shakespeare doing the start and end and Fletcher the middle.
I’ve spent my life writing in collaboration … ELT dialogue, screenplays, pantomimes, comedy sketches. I’ve written mainly as a duo, but also as a trio and a quartet. We never broke down a drama or dialogue like that. The whole point of multiple writers is developing dialogue and interaction which two people often do better than one. The only time we split labour was where our (non-ELT) co-writer provided a detailed plot for an hour mystery drama, then we wrote all the dialogue. You inevitably tinker with the plot a little when doing so, but then we sat down as three and polished right through. I just cannot believe that Shakespeare and Fletcher wrote as a kind of parlour game of “continue the story,” though with most collaborations it looks as if they took separate threads of the story, just as in film a second unit is dispatched to get all the ambient traffic stuff.
LINKS ON THIS BLOG:
The Rover, RSC 2016 (Don Pedro)
The Seagull, Headlong / Nuffield 2013 (Trigorin)
The Seven Year Itch by George Axelrod, Salisbury Playhouse
‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Cheek by Jowl , by John Ford Nuffield