Two Gentlemen Of Verona
The Tobacco Factory production
Directed by Andrew Hilton
Theatre Royal Winchester
Wednesday 12th June 2013
Two Gentleman of Verona is said to be Shakespeare’s earliest play, dating from 1590 or 1591. Some argue it was five years later around the time of Taming of The Shrew, but I’d go for the earliest date. It’s also said to be one of his weakest plays, as is Comedy of Errors. I’ve never seen Comedy of Errors fail to work on stage, so I was fascinated to see whether Two Gentlemen of Verona worked as well, this being the first time I’ve seen it.
Writers have pet themes, signature themes. John Irving has wrestling and bears pop up in novel after novel, and Two Gentleman of Verona previews a series of classic Shakesperean themes: the four lovers (Proteus and Julia, Valentine and Silvia) predate A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there are harbingers of Comedy of Errors (funny servants), Twelfth Night, A Winter’s Tale and even Cardenio (in the outlaws and threatened rape). This was a clear and articulate production, perfectly transparent for a new watcher like me.
Proteus (L), Valentine (R)
The production was in Edwardian costume, which was fine, making it look somewhat like a production of Oscar Wilde. The stage set was effective with a bandstand (useful for hiding behind, or standing on to eavesdrop) and a lamp post with a base actors could sit on, but at Winchester the backcloth was a silver cinema screen, which was used in night scenes to bear a projected moon. It was OK at night, but in day scenes it served to make the whole thing look extremely bare, and I think it was a bad idea, but not all the venues on the play’s tour were proscenium stages, so perhaps they didn’t need it everywhere. It can’t be seen in any of the on line production photos.
There are some excellent scenes in the play, particularly the comedy where Valentine is setting out to spirit Silvia away from the tower room in which she has been locked by her dad, the Duke of Milan. Valentine has a ‘corded ladder’ under his coat, and the Duke knows what he’s about. Proteus, who is after Silvia himself, has betrayed his best mate’s plans to the Duke. The Duke asks for advice on how he can get to a woman locked in a tower, and eventually discovers the corded ladder under Valentine’s coat. That’s intrinsically a great comedy scene.
Julia, who Proteus is in love with at the start, is an excellent role, and Dorothea Myer-Bennett makes the most of it. The role has a lot going for it, especially in the early scene with her servant, Lucetta, when she refuses to look at the love letter Proteus has sent her. If it was Shakespeare’s first play, it was the first time he had a heroine cross-dress as a man, as Julia does when she dresses up as Sebastian. It was not to be the last! It’s the outstanding role in the play.
Proteus and Valentine have been best buddies for years. Proteus (Piers Wehner) is a schemer, who falls in love instantly with Valentine’s beloved, Silvia, and plots to get Valentine banished. Valentine (Jack Bannell) is the ideal hero. There’s a point where they both cross legs in synchronicity, and it was so good it made me think more business could have been done along the same lines with this pair. The production has some fun with the original lines, with the cast disagreeing on whether to say ban-i-shed, or banish’d. In the Edwardian setting, Jack Bannell so looked the part of the hero, that I was expecting them to take the role over the top for fun too, but they didn’t. The four lovers are all first-rate, but I wasn’t quite sure about the emotional pieces, and I think the comedy could have been played up even more. Afterwards we were discussing how Proteus as a dastardly villain and Valentine as a derring-do hero could have been played more broadly. There’s a lot of monologue but good reaction acting makes the script seem more interactive than it actually is.
The pair of male servants are Launce (plus his dog, Crab) as servant to Proteus (Chris Donnelly), and Speed as servant to Valentine (Marc Geoffrey). These are clown roles, rather like the two Dromios in The Comedy of Errors, without the mistaken identity, and like all Shakespeare clowns they have a lot of forced puns and word play to wade through, and both of them succeed brilliantly.
Launce + Crab the dog
It’s the only Shakespeare play with a dog in it, though I’m convinced A Winter’s Tale would have had a real trained bear. Reviewers of the Tobacco Factory production have been very taken with this particular dog (a black Labrador, not the one on the programme cover), and there is accidental humour when the dog is being described as bold and brave and it yawns, but actually it’s a pretty passive dog. I’ve worked with trained dogs and they’re a lot easier than cats (see The Lieutenant of Inishmore for a trained cat needed on stage), but we came a cropper when we had to get a dog to jump up and shut a door, and this was to be done with a biscuit held in the letter box. We weren’t to know that bored actors had spent the entire day feeding the dog with biscuits and so it had no interest in a further one. The dog here was fine, and was there as the butt of a series of comic lines from Launce, the servant to Proteus, but I didn’t think it out of the ordinary. The idea of introducing a dog features in the film Shakespeare in Love which shows a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.
It has the smallest cast of any Shakespeare play, and a lot of music is added, which seems to have been a standard 20th / 21st century approach, and the actors have to double as musicians, or possibly vice versa. The result for me was that their instrumental playing was somewhat tentative, and several of the songs were weak. The big production number on “Milano” with singing dancing waiters was the best musical piece. But the music and dance ran through and lifted the spirits.
Afterwards we remarked that the play was ‘Shakespeare-lite’ in that it lacks sub-plots, and well-known quotable lines, and it really is “only” comedy. You can’t squeeze much depth of emotion from it, and it has a forced ending. But it has three good female roles … Julia, Lucetta and Silvia. Lucetta has a lot more to do than most Shakesperean maidservants, and calling her Bruschetta in error was a nice modern addition. It is a play worth doing, and full marks to the Tobacco Factory for making it so enjoyable.
Ten out of ten. One unlit cigar for Lord Turio, the foolish suitor to Silvia.
WINCHESTER THEATRE ROYAL
Our first visit. A lovely theatre, great staff, large public areas, plenty of loos. They don’t get many major companies there, and looking at the programme most things are very short runs. A pity. It ticks a lot of boxes that the Nuffield, a few miles away in Southampton can’t tick. It’s right in the city centre, and surrounded by restaurants. It starts shows at 8 pm so there’s time to eat before for those who travel to get there. Surprisingly it was less than half full, but that number was better than most recent Nuffield ones. For an affluent city like Winchester, I thought it a small audience, even given it was midweek, but Shakespeare usually has the audience swollen with school parties and it is near the end of term in exam season, with a definitely “not a set book” play. In Bath it would have been packed, and deservedly so. Maybe it’s South Hampshire, rather than the Nuffield Theatre that means smaller audiences. On the other hand, you need a season of solid runs of quality productions (like this) to establish a theatre-going habit in a town, so maybe this is a start.