These past few days marked my trip to Oxford to visit a friend from school who now lives and works there (on the off-chance you’re reading this, hi Ceyda!), along with her sister (whose blog you can find here and should read, obviously). Amidst museum wanderings, semi-successful punting expeditions, and a jaunt to London to attend YALC on Friday, we took in a spot of Shakespeare at the Bodleian, as you do on a summery Thursday evening.
Shakespeare’s Globe, in conjunction with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, are touring a production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by Nick Bagnall, which sees Shakespeare’s early comedy launched brashly and boldly into the 20th century, a musical and theatrical mashup that should please even someone having a bad day. In fact, I defy you to sit and not clap or tap feet along to the music. Believed to be Shakespeare’s first play, Two Gentlemen tells the story of Valentine and Proteus, two young men who discover the trials and tribulations of falling in love in quite a spectacular (and farcical) fashion. Considered by some critics to be his weakest play, nevertheless Two Gentlemen is a comedy which teases the themes later plays will return to with such roaring success, including cross dressing heroines, a band of outlaws, the inconstancy of men, clownish servants, and men (and women) frankly being fools in love.
“Valentine loves Silvia and Proteus loves Julia – but Proteus is fickle and falls for Silvia too. When Valentine plots an elopement, Proteus betrays him and Valentine is banished and joins some outlaws in the forest. What are the chances that he’ll be pursued by Silvia, and Silvia by Proteus, and Proteus by Julia, and that all will be waited upon – after a fashion – by their servants Speed and Launce and even Launce’s dog, Crab?”
(Synopsis taken from The Globe’s programme)
First and foremost I must mention the staging of this play – this is a production that truly comes into its own when it’s performed, as I saw it, outdoors. In Oxford it was staged in the quad of the Bodleian library, meaning the sound of the electric guitars and drums and chimes sounded out loud against the distant sound of passing buses and cars and the occasional person walking by in the street outside. As the interval ended and the second half of the play resumed, the darkening evening sky helped to mirror the darker tone the once-playful comedy’s plot had taken by this point. The sense of atmosphere this adds cannot be overstated – and having various members of the ensemble cast begin scenes by standing amongst the audience really helps add to the sense of comedy and anarchy. Different levels are used cleverly in this production, with dual ladders either side of a raised platform, and one at the rear, helping to stage the dialogue between friends or rivals in an explicitly visual way. Kudos must also be given to every single member of the ensemble, from the youngest to the oldest member, who leaped and bounded across the stage and up those ladders without faltering a single line of dialogue.
Multi-talented would probably be the word I would use for the ensemble cast. One of the smallest dramatis personae in Shakespeare’s entire ouevre, this nine-person cast are all musically talented, expected to be able to play the drums and sing as well as they can recite their lines. In fact, music becomes a vital tool in the production which sees the characters grapple with sixties music and clothing in order to tell the story of Valentine and Silvia and Proteus and Julia. Love letters between characters become records, yes, vinyls are passed from character to character and played out on the record player placed centre-stage whilst the band behind it play the song for the audience to hear. Very fitting considering the time period the play finds itself occupying.
With any Shakespeare play that involves letters, productions often try to stage this in a creative or alternative fashion – when a love-sick Orlando in As You Like It soliloquises “Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree / The fair, the chaste and unexpressive she” productions manifest this literally, showing tree scenery with sonnets carved boldly into their trunks. In Two Gentlemen music is the means by which to explore characters’ personalities and their inner conflicts. When a lovelorn Valentine appears on-stage with guitar, he stands oddly exposed and vulnerable behind a microphone as the audience awaits the admission of his love, via song. And, well, to use Shakespeare’s own words – if music be the food of love, play on!
Music is also one means of comedy in the play, specifically when not especially aurally pleasing declarations of love fall on the unimpressed ears of characters and audiences alike, creating a strong bond between those in the play and those watching it. Likewise, the bond created through laughter and comedy is a huge strength of the production, with all of the players showcasing their comedy chops. Special mention must be made to Fred Thomas, a musician in the band who later very begrudgingly takes on the non-speaking role of the dog (yes, the dog) and managed to make me laugh so hard my sides hurt without even uttering a single word. That, for me, is top quality comedic acting, relying on facial expressions and body language to express what the role (necessarily) could not.
Likewise, the boisterous double act of Guy Hughes and Dharmesh Patel as Valentine and Proteus were perfectly balanced against each other, their interactions adding yet more energy and vigour to the comedy, a factor which made the inevitable destruction of their friendship and camaraderie all the sadder. Not wishing to spoil everything that happens in the play, I can only say that Proteus’ acknowledgement of his wrongs and the pleading at the feet of his once-friend strikes a jarringly and suddenly emotional chord that I did not expect in the slightest – the elongated pause of Valentine before he responded served to make me wish his begging friend redeemed, even after all his despicable behaviour!
This unexpected pathos, this sudden punch to the gut, is a feature of many of Shakespeare’s comedies – amidst the innuendo (honourable mention here must be given to Valentine and Proteus’ grappling embrace on-stage that begins to look increasingly like you’re watching something more intimate in nature) and the farce and the dramatic sighing over love, there is a dark undertone which serves to provide some sense of emotional resonance at the end of it all. And that emotional response also comes in the masterful and yearning soliloquies of the comedy’s female characters, Leah Brotherhead’s Julia and Aruhan Galieva’s Silvia, as they separately lament the (largely undeserving) men that they find themselves loving. As Julia herself bemoans “Fie, fie! how wayward is this foolish love, / That, like a testy babe, will scratch the nurse, / And presently, all humbled, kiss the rod!”.
And on that very fine note, I can only conclude this review by urging you, if you can, get yourself along to the nearest theatre they are playing and see this wonderfully energetic, entertaining, and musical Globe on Tour production before it ends.
“Come Protheus, ’tis your pennance, but to heare
The story of your Loues discouered.
That done, our day of marriage shall be yours,
One Feast, one house, one mutuall happinesse.”
For more info, behind the scenes, and tickets, please visit the Globe’s website here.