It’s easy to seriously muck up a production of one of Shakespeare’s great plays, but exceptionally hard to pull off a good production of a relatively weak play like Two Gentlemen of Verona. I enjoy seeing one of the lesser plays produced, as it’s fascinating to see what a really good director and cast can do with unpromising source material.
One thing you can do is have lots of music and spectacle and there are a few musical interludes in this new production. The extended opening is a joy; the ensemble cast re-creates a busy restaurant in Verona, with live music and without dialogue but with lots of audience interaction. It’s great fun. It’s contrasted with the sophistication of the Milanese court later, in a fabulous interlude involving a cabaret singer/ exotic dancer and bizarre Tudorbethan disco dancing.
The production doesn’t try to overwhelm with spectacle, however. In fact, occasionally it lacks pace. This may because I watched it on the third night of its run, so the actors need to get into their stride. But it may be the quality of the text. One of the reasons that the play is weak is that Shakespeare was still learning his craft (many scholars believe this to be his first play) so there are long speeches that are undramatic wordplay. Perhaps they were funny in the sixteenth century but they aren’t now, so I found myself thinking that if I’d directed the play, I’d have been ruthless with my red pencil and removed some of those speeches. (It’s an advantage of one of the minor plays that you can excise stuff without offending too many purists.)
Something else that doesn’t work so well these days are the plays dodgy sex and racial politics. When Proteus falls in love with Sylvia and out of love with Julia he says “And Silvia — witness Heaven, that made her fair!— / Shows Julia but a swarthy Ethiope. / I will forget that Julia is alive”. However, it’s foolish to expect a sixteenth century play to conform to modern standards.
I thoroughly enjoyed the production, especially the performances by Pearl Chanda (Julia), Nicholas Gerard-Martin (Thurio), whose serenade scene was very funny, and Michael Marcus (Valentine). Honourable mentions, too, for Sarah MacRae (Silvia) and Martin Bassindale (Speed). The outlaws were also amusing. It’s also beautifully staged, with enough physicality and dark moments to carry the preposterousness of the plot – no twins or shipwrecks, but we do get a woman dressed as a man and instantaneous reversals of character.
An excellent RSC directorial debut from Simon Godwin. One small niggle: the first half was very long – almost two hours by my watch.