Surprisingly Shakespearean: Two Gentlemen of Verona (RSC) and Shakespeare in Love (West End)

It might sometimes feel like nothing new can be said about Shakespeare. But I’ve just seen two Shakespearean productions that surprised me, for different reasons: the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and a new West End adaptation of Shakespeare in Love.

Two Gents is rarely staged so I jumped at the chance to see it in Stratford, having assumed that I’m unlikely to have many opportunities to do so again.

Its reputation is not good. It’s one of Shakespeare’s novice plays, perhaps his first, and certainly his earliest comedy. And it shows all the signs of being a play by an inexperienced writer. As the director Simon Godwin mentions in his very informative programme note, the dialogue in the play is usually shared out between two or at most three characters – a sign that Shakespeare had yet to develop the confidence to sustain conversation across larger groups. He goes on as follows:

There’s directness in the plotting. As playwrights get more experienced, they become oblique in their exposition. Here, characters come on and say “the following things have happened so we must do this immediately”… This play is joyfully clear but sometimes you notice the joins.

With its cross-dressing heroine, and its themes of betrayal and over-hasty reconciliation, it is seen generally as a prototype for later, better plays, especially As You Like It. So in some of the press previews for the production, it’s been presented as an opportunity to see a curiosity: bad Shakespeare done well. That’s been a minor trend lately: we’ve seen strong productions of Timon of Athens by Nick Hytner and Troilus and Cressida by Cheek By Jowl, for example. So I went along with a sense of curiosity but without high expectations.

I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the play is a neglected masterpiece, but the production was consistently engaging and entertaining. There’s a courage in giving this flawed play to a director who’s new to the RSC – and he in turn has been courageous in casting actors who seem in most cases to be just out of drama school. This is a young person’s play with a very young cast – and despite their lack of experience, the performances are very good, and in some cases excellent.

As the audience enters the auditorium, the action is already underway – we find onstage an Italian piazza with an outdoor café. The cast lounge about, sipping espressos, playing music, gossiping, perhaps flirting. Some members of the audience are led onstage and given ice-cream: a gimmick that reminded me of John Tiffany’s direction of Oncethe Musical, which opens with the cast already having a session in a bar, at which audiences can buy pints of stout during the interval.

As the action kicks off, there is again a pleasant surprise: the delivery of lines has a clarity that is unusual, even at the RSC. The actors fully understand what they are saying, and they make sure that we do too: there’s some simple and effective use of emphasis, gesture, and body language to make sure we know what’s going on, notably from Martin Bassindale, the actor playing Speed. Also impressive is the way in which the actors have been directed to respond to each other: they clearly understand each other’s lines too. I was also surprised by how literally the lines were delivered. A lot of Shakespearean performances nowadays try to get cheap laughs from playing against Shakespeare’s original meanings, but here the actors just tell Shakespeare’s jokes, even the slightly clunky ones. This might all seem like  very basic stuff (understanding your lines, responding to the other actors), but the quality of the work was strong enough to make many other recent productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen seem seriously under-rehearsed by comparison.

So by the time the two gents have arrived at Milan, the production has found an easygoing, confident rhythm. And yes, there is a live dog onstage, and yes she steals the show, repeatedly. There are also several musicians who play live throughout: I glumly noted that the RSC have more musicians in the wings than many theatres have actors on stage.

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Roger Morlidge and Mossip

And when the plot flags a bit, the direction finds a way to liven things up, adding in some extra business that enhances the action without changing the meaning of the play. A lively highlight occurs about half-way through the first part of the play, when we find ourselves in a Veronese nightclub, cast and musicians joining together to don sunglasses and dance to music that feels more Brazilian than Italian –  not because Shakespeare wrote this scene (he didn’t) but simply because the characters are young and they want to dance (you can hear the music and see parts of this scene in the trailer below). Here I found myself being reminded of Rupert Goold’s brilliant direction of the ball in his RSC Romeo and Juliet from 2010, in which we find Juliet losing herself in a heavily percussive beat that made it very difficult (for me, anyway) to stay sitting passively – and which established a tone and level of energy that persisted to the play’s conclusion.

In suggesting that Godwin’s work reminded me of Goold and John Tiffany I don’t want to imply that his direction is derivative. What impressed me about him was his willingness to both respect the text (by directing his actors so carefully) while also theatricalising it fully. He has a great scene, for example, when the foppish Turio tries to woo Sylvia by singing up to her as she stands on her balcony. Lest we be distracted by memories of Romeo and Juliet, Godwin has his actor (Nicholas Gerrard-Martin) perform his courtship in the form of a song – one so fabulously bad that we might half-wonder if Silvia might take pity on him after all.

Is it a good play? Well, not really – but we find here that Proteus is more than just an interesting prototype of Iago or Hamlet – and that Julia is more than just a prototype for Rosland and Viola. We also see how, from the beginning, Shakespeare was playing with form: here he gives  us a comedy that concludes with Valentine offering to give up Silvia to Proteus – the man who had just attempted to rape her. Valentine’s proposal that his wedding to Silvia be accompanied by a wedding between Proteus and Julia feels very uncomfortable, in a way that would be repeated (without being much improved upon) in Measure for Measure.

And there are some very good performances. The two female leads are very strong. Many of the female performers I’ve seen in recent RSC productions seemed miscast or out of their depth: they seemed too inclined to use an affected throaty style of line delivery instead of – well, instead of acting. As Julia and Silvia, Pearl Chanda and Sarah Macrae  bring their own individuality to their characters: there is a naturalness and a distinctiveness to the line delivery by both that impressed me very much, especially given that both parts are so horribly underwritten and repetitive (especially Silvia’s).  Chandra’s performance has an apparently effortless quality that makes her transformation from male to female at the end of the play seem both sexually charged and poignant. She’s very  impressive. I am sure we’ll be hearing more about her in the years ahead.

Mark Arends (Proteus) and Pearl Chanda (Julia)

Mark Arends as Proteus and Pearl Chandra as Julia

This production is running on in Stratford for the rest of the summer, and they plan to broadcast it live around the world in early September. I’d recommend it.

Meanwhile, in the West End we have the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, a charming and very smart film that was scripted by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. This West End adaptation comes under the Disney banner (co-produced with Sonia Friedman), but it’s also directed by Declan Donnellan, so any fears that it might be a blatantly commercialised production are balanced out by the credibility of the director.

This production has been getting great reviews, and it’s easy to see why. The stage features a large three-story structure that reproduces the architecture of a typical Elizabethan playhouse (as shown below). The design, of course, is by Nick Ormerod, whom Donnellan always works with in their Cheek By Jowl productions.

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Sometimes the action is literally set in a playhouse – for a rehearsal or for the performance of Romeo and Juliet that concluded the film so memorably. Yet even when the action happens in other places, we remain within a theatre, so that even intimate scenes (such as when Will finds his way into Viola’s bedroom) are observed by other members of the cast, who become a silent audience when they are not actively performing. Donnellan has  thoroughly theatricalised the entire performance, which becomes a series of plays within plays: like a dramatic version of a Russian matrushka doll.

And it’s been quite skilfully adapted too (by Lee Hall, who also gave us Billy Elliot). The role of Christopher Marlowe is expanded considerably, so that he now feeds lines to Will in a scene that fills in some of the missing links between  Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and Cyrano de Bergerac. These interchanges give Will someone to talk to, making his characterisation easier to understand – and they also intensify the audiene’s distress when Marlowe’s death is revealed (drawing gasps from some of the people watching the play, incidentally – does it require spoiler warnings?).

And as you’d expect, there is some lovely movement around the stage. Donnellan always creates wonderful stage pictures, and does so here too – the image below, for example, is one of the first we see:

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Or there’s this one:

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Such tableaux feel natural and unfussy, and they’re often very pleasing to look at.

Donnellan also makes a virtue of having a simple set. Sometimes we see  action that is “backstage”, sometimes we are seeing it being performed “onstage” – and the flipping back and forth from the stage to behind the scenes offers all the fun of Noises Off, while fleshing out the idea that is at the heart of this adaptation, as it is at the heart of Shakespeare’s work – namely, that the performances of actors merely make explicit what people do in other aspects of their lives: they perform at the court of Elizabeth, or in the arrangement of marriages, or in the application of the law or diplomacy. It might be clichéd to come away from this performance observing that all the world is a stage, but that indeed is the point it wants to make.

So it’s clever and touching and very well directed and beautifully designed and funny….

And yet… It’s slightly disappointing in parts.

The pace isn’t quite right yet, perhaps because the show is still early in its run. The film has many good jokes, but a lot of them were lost when I saw it earlier today – and indeed some of the dialogue was inaudible, at least to me: it was drowned out by stage business or spoken into the back of the stage. I also found it difficult to warm to the performance of Viola (perhaps too much influenced by the ones I’d seen in Two Gents), which I found to be occasionally affected without ever being affecting – I don’t think we have enough time to warm to the character.  So I was surprised to find myself missing Gwyneth Paltrow (having listened to the most recent Coldplay album more often than I should have done, I did not think myself capable of such a feeling…).

And some of the other characterisations felt like missed opportunities.  In the film, Wessex was played as a genuinely unlikable character –  and as someone we could genuinely imagine existing. Here he is written and performed more as a buffoon: full of a bluster that appears designed to hide his own impotence and lust. He’s not much of a threat to Will, and thus the sadness of Viola’s forced marriage to him does not seem quite as upsetting as it did in the film.

I also found the production and script a little too willing to be ingratiating. One of the great things about the film script was that it had so many references to his plays – I loved the way it segued into  Twelfth Night at the end, for example. Most of those references are retained, but (unless I am misremembering) it seems like many more have been added.

Some of them are indeed very funny: “Out Damn Spot” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” from Macbeth are deployed to great comic effect (though the reference to Banquo’s ghost from the film feels thrown away here). There’s also an amusing allusion to Malvolio towards the end. But there are some jokes that seem a little too keen to please – a reference to Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar felt a bit obvious to me, and I thought that at one stage I heard the ‘out vile jelly’ line from Lear. And when at the end Romeo and Juliet is declared a “palpable hit” I wondered if the actor was actually going to turn and wink at the audience. So when the actors break off from the curtain call to give us an Elizabethan dance (as would have happened in Shakespeare’s time too, of course), it all feels like they are trying too hard to put a smile on our faces… In short, the Disney starts to show after a while.

There is one new allusion which works well – and that’s the inclusion of a dog (taken straight from Two Gents). But perhaps Shakespeare in Love might have been better off if it had instead taken more notice of the darker elements of Two Gentlemen. The betrayal by one friend of another and the attempted rape of a young woman appear in both plays, but are rushed through here in what feels like a race to get us to the end. Shakespearean comedy is always most successful when its darker elements are emphasised – as when we felt sorry for Malvolio and Olivia in Wayne Jordan’s recent Twelfth Night, for example. But there is no darkness here. There isn’t even much shade.

This is not to say that Shakespeare in Love is bad but rather that it could be (and may still become) better. In its desire to please it seems to betray an anxiety, a wish to be liked, that is perhaps understandable but wholly unnecessary. The play is a hit; it will almost certainly be going to Broadway, and it is likely to be enjoyed there too. We will probably find it showing up in the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin, sometime around 2022, after it’s been everywhere else. So perhaps the cast will slow down, taking time to flesh out their roles a bit more – and remember that, since this is a comedy, we should spend at least some of the time feeling disturbed and upset.

Having said all that, I am certainly in a minority in my views on Shakespeare in Love – reviews have been largely positive.  Here’s the trailer for Shakespeare in Love:

And the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona

Both are worth seeing – but if you have to pick one I’d recommend the bad Shakespeare done well over the brilliantly directed re-imaginging of Shakespeare – which has the odd effect of seeming to reduce his importance, even as it places him centre-stage.

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