The Two Gentlemen of Verona
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin
Designed by Paul Wills
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 16th August 2014, 13.15
I like seeing the cast list with “RSC debut” over so many of the younger actors. You know you’re seeing major actors of three or four years time. It’s an RSC debut for director Simon Godwin too.
It’s probably Shakespeare’s earliest comedy, along with The Comedy of Errors. It’s far less performed than the Comedy of Errors, though it was in a highly acclaimed production by The Tobacco Factory, Bristol last year. (SEE LINK). The last time the RSC performed it was 45 years ago. It’s also the one with a dog, as lampooned in Shakespeare in Love… beautifully in the stage version. That dog is called Spot, giving the great line, “Out, damned Spot!
I loved the Guardian preview, reprinted in the program me, that praised the play’s vitality and freshness, comparing it to Please Please Me in The Beatles’ canon. When I saw the Tobacco Factory production, I was taken with the clarity and transparency of the plot. It is fascinating to see the writer testing out themes which will be done again later; this is the first girl dressed as a boy disguise. It has the four lovers in the wood. It has the band of outlaws in the wild. It has balcony scenes with lovers below. I’ve always liked The Comedy of Errors and last year’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona had me looking forward eagerly to seeing it again.
This production on a Saturday afternoon was severely hampered. As we were especially keen on seeing this one, we went for the premium seats. Serious error. Two rows behind us, a poor guy was on a breathing machine in the disabled area. Yes, it’s so good that people can get out and see these things, and it’s enormous effort for them, but we found it severely distressing, as one does when you can hear loud wheezing assisted breathing in a different rhythm to one’s own right through the play. The people in front of us were equally affected, squirming in the quiet bits and looking round as the wheezing took over, so were people several seats away, and you cannot shut it out and it really, really impairs concentration. Add the woman next to us who virtually destroyed the wonderful pre-show cafe´scene by pointing at friends again and again with her arm just an inch in front of our noses, then standing and trying to move in front of us, talking to her husband, then opening THREE noisy zips on her handbag each time to get cough sweets during the play. And coughing. It was awful. If we’d been at home in Poole, we would definitely have left in the interval regardless of ticket price. We noted, NEVER book RSC premium seats downstairs again. Avoid matinees. But it was also the weakest RSC production we’ve seen.
The pre-show. Antonio’s Restaurant
This production was vastly inferior to the Tobacco Factory production. All the RSC effort went into expensive and elaborate stage sets, nowhere near enough into comedy direction. Make that NONE into comedy direction. It was unfunny from start to finish.The designer’s name (Paul Wills) above goes right next to the director, as the stage designs were the star of the show.
It was set as modern Italian. The pre-show, twenty minutes of establishing an Italian open air café with the actors improvising was so far the best thing in the play. Or rather before the play. As with Julius Caesar a couple of years ago, it’s essential to get in and sit as soon as the doors open and just watch … fortunately we’d been tipped off. Nothing hit that level of interest again.
Sylvia (Sarah MacRae) & Valentine (Michael Marcus): Part one dance number, looks great, sounds great, but does it fit?
It’s hard to know where to start. OK, music. So you have a first rate eight-piece band. You have a good score by Michael Bruce. You put one big production dance number in the first half, which is superbly done but 100% extraneous. Sounds good. Looks good. Is long, Absolutely nothing to do with the play. Then in the second half you have the other excellent thing, Turio’s accompanied love song to Silvia. The best musical piece AND the funniest acting in the whole play. Turio along with Julia and Lucetta stole the show in acting. But it’s isolated. Separate. The Tobacco Factory had some slightly creaky playing, singing and dancing but it ran all the way through the play and it was INTEGRATED and APPROPRIATE. You couldn’t say that about any of the featured music here, though incidental music was excellent. There should have been more and shorter bits of dance and music, and as a comedy what happened to the encore? No dance encore? It’s becoming unusual.
Then let’s take pace and life. I reckon this ran half an hour longer than the Tobacco Factory production. I may be wrong, but if I am, it’s a tribute to the pace and sparkle of the 2013 production. I think the Tobacco Factory cut a lot of lines near the start. Here the take-off was sluggardly and dull. The play needs cuts. As other comments say, it shows its early writing by its reliance on two and three character scenes. The Tobacco Factory linked them with ensemble work, dancing and singing the set changes.
On comedy, let’s take two should-be hilarious scenes. The first is when Valentino is trying to conceal the corded ladder (to climb to Silvia’s bedroom) beneath his cloak while being interviewed by Silvia’s father. Abandoned here. Nothing done with it at all except recite the lines. It was tears down the face funny last year as it became more and more obvious that he was hiding something substantial and was getting more and more embarrassed by Sylvia’s dad’s questions. Sylvia’s dad is the Duke of Milan, not that you’d know.
Then we have Valentine captured by the outlaws. Here, he walked onto a net and was hoisted skywards … effective, elaborate, but immediate so lacking in tension. So the theatre has expensive state of the art lifting gear. Seeing them acting from within a net was funny but brief. Then we have the language scene where Valentine talks to the outlaws in a foreign language. Again, much longer but also hilarious with the Tobacco Factory, thrown away here with nary a laugh in sight.
On the outlaws scenes, one of the notable things about the play is the “attempted rape” of Sylvia by the thwarted Proteus. High drama as she is saved by Valentine, though it causes some credibility issues as Julia disguised as a boy is watching and has to be reconciled with Proteus moments later. But it is always described as an attempted rape.
Proteus: I’ll woo you like a soldier at arms’ end
And love you against the nature of love … force ye!
Silvia: O, Heaven!
Proteus: I’ll force thee to yield to my desire!
I’d describe this production as “an attempted holding of one arm a bit tightly” and also the self-assured Sylvia struck me as more than capable of putting this Proteus on his back rather than vice-versa. Another strong scene done weakly.
Launce (Roger Morlidge) and Crab the dog
Where did it win? Well, Launce the dog handler (Roger Morlidge) was good, though not ‘better’, and the lurcher looked more the part and got mid-scene applause. I noted that Launce said “Look you …” three times at least, which is Shakespeare’s “comic Welshman” marker in Henry IV Part 1 & 2 and in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Both those were explained as Welsh characters in the plot of those plays, but this is Italy. We don’t know if Shakespeare was thinking “Welsh” though clearly London audiences in the 1590s found a Welsh accent funny and he had an actor who could carry it off. So … I might have gone for a Welsh accent not Generic Northern, though whatever comes natural is best. There is a potential debate on which accents are funny and why. Generic Northern is just “regional”. We know that Cockney, Birmingham and Liverpool fit comic scallywags. We know that Welsh, Wiltshire and Worcestershire (i.e. Birmingham) are natural at drawing laughs, as are Essex, high-pitched Jimmy Clitheroe Lancashire and stuck-up middle-class Cheshire. On accents, why was the maid Scottish? Also why not, but if there’s no reason, and it’s not intrinsically “funny.” I’d stick to standard RP English. It is much clearer, especially for an international audience, which you get at Stratford in summer.
Having said that, Leigh Quinn as Lucetta, the maid, was one of the few who could really play comedy. She played Lucetta large, and with full-on energy. The scenes between Lucetta and Julia are first-rate comedy writing, pointing the way to later comedies. Both times when it was just Julia and Lucetta on stage, the comedy level and our enjoyment lifted noticeably. Julia Chandra was an effective and affecting Julia, doing the cross-dressing as a boy particularly well. She also displayed a good range from passionately romantic to funny to touchingly serious as the boy. Another notable performance was Nicholas Gerard-Martin as Turio, Sylvia’s rejected rich boy suitor. He has a natural gift for comedy too, and as above, his song was the high point of the entire production and got the most laughs, though the dog actually got that spontaneous applause at the end of its scene. It shows that the character of Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love was right in demanding more dogs perhaps.
The background SFX … drum beats, water flowing, forest birdsong, were all welcome throughout in obscuring that disturbing wheezing noise. I know I’m being cruel, but theatres organize special signed performances for the hard of hearing. They could have special performances for breathing difficulties … or in fact combine them. The hard-of-hearing aren’t going to notice.
Proteus (Mark Arends) and Julia (Pearl Chanda)
You could say the direction brought out the non-comedic values of the piece as the major reviews point out. There is a strand on deceit and loyalty and treachery. You could also say that these are by no means its strength in the first place. As with Comedy of Errors, the secret is to go for farce and play it up. It also lacked the clarity of that 2013 production. Loadsamoney thrown at set design to great visual effect. Weak comedy direction. Both the Tobacco Factory and The Globe show how much more effective you can be with far cheaper and simpler sets and more considered comedy direction. Loadsamoney? Wasteamoney. Waste of our time and money for sure.
Star ratings may be silly, but whatever the Tobacco Factory got, this has to be two stars lower. I’d say four for the Tobacco Factory, so no more than a mere two for this. And I’ve factored in the worst audience distraction for years and tried to compensate for it.
I think this is the first time we have ever found two RSC productions in one visit (this and The White Devil) mediocre to poor. The White Devil was an excellent production of a dull play, so overall mediocre. This was a dull, though elaborate, production of a play that the Tobacco Factory had proved better than its reputation.
While in an unusually negative mood towards the RST (praised elsewhere as our greatest theatrical asset, see London-Centric Theatre) the RST really has the most stupidly designed toilets. This is a repeat moan. Those hand dryers continually blasting as the doors open and shut. No queuing areas. The urinal in the gents you can’t get to because it’s behind the stall, and if you get to it, you can’t get out of it. My companion said a video running in the ladies queue would be hilarious. She adds that you can’t reach the flush without putting the seat lid down. We wonder how they could have renovated the theatre and had such dreadful designs. We both agreed … the directors should try the toilets in the intervals at their busiest, then go down to the newly-renovated Chichester Festival Theatre in the interval to see what they should have done. Looking at the fortune expended here on set design, how about a couple of things with simpler sets next year, and invest in improving the loos instead?