REVIEW: Two Gentlemen Of Verona, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre ✭✭✭✭

RSC Two Gentlemen Of Verona. Photo: Alastair Muir

RSC Two Gentlemen Of Verona. Photo: Alastair Muir

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
16 August 2014
4 stars

You really feel like you are in Italy. Something about the combination of al fresco dining tables, complete with red checked tablecloths, happy musicians playing frisky tunes, the hustle and bustle of waiters, paper planes whiz zing around, and patrons cajoled into ice-cream or a glass of bubbly by chatty, flirty waiters, all with an eye for a passing lady, is irresistible. And atop all that movement, rows of red, heart-shaped lights which provide both a romantic glow and a sense of sexy fun.

Whatever your mood, entering the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and seeing the spectacle of riotous colour and joy provided by Paul Wills' delicious design for Simon Godwin's debut RSC production, a revival of (probably) Shakespeare's first play, The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, you can't help but smile.

This is the play much discussed in and quoted from in Shakespeare In Love. It's rarely done and many people consider it a “problem” play.

But it has never seemed that way to me and in Godwin's hands it sparkles with a simple, clear sense of love, lust and the stupid things people do when either controls their heart.

Many of the concepts and notions and settings and plot twists that Shakespeare will become famous for can be seen here – for the first time.

The friends whose loves come between them. The girls who dress as boys in order to unearth truths or find freedom. The contrast between city life and country life. Issues between fathers and sons. The problems of hands promised in marriage without love being in the equation. The use of a clown to pep up proceedings or alter moods when things are too dark. Mistaken identities. Moments of breath-taking simplicity but heart-breaking poignancy – here, such as when Proteus gives the disguised Julia the ring she gave him originally asking the disguised her to give it to another woman; or when the same disguised Julia looks at Silvia's portrait and asks “What is in this portrait that I do not have?”.

Godwin directs with clarity and verve. The story is told cleanly, with excellent pace, and there are many beautiful stage pictures created. Michael Bruce's wonderful score and Bruno Poet's fabulous lighting work especially well in augmenting Godwin's vision.

It's a sort of modern day dress take on old Verona and Milan. It's not really modern but certainly not classical. It has an ineffable quality which sets is as “now” more than “then” (there is, for instance, an hilarious moment when Speed throws open the balcony doors for his master, Valentine, and the noise of cars and modern traffic is overwhelming) and this adds to the overall effect of the piece.

It's funny in many places, all where it should be, but, equally, it is dark and insightful in the grim passages. Proteus' lustful pursuit of Silvia is not watered down and it is genuinely concerning when he virtually threatens to rape her. The innate horror of Silvia's predicament with her ghastly betrothed, Turio, is also quite clear – as is the danger the outlaws in the forest pose to innocent passers-by.

Proteus is a terrifically difficult part to pull off. He loves his best mate, Valentine, and adores Julia. But when he goes to Milan to see Valentine, he spies Silvia and his lust for her overtakes him, making him betray Valentine and treat Julia as if she were dead. Then when Silvia rejects him, for the third time, he is willing to rape her to have her. Valentine's intervention saves him from himself and the shock seems to knock him back on course, back to the arms of the Julia who has tried to help him woo Silvia, so great is her love for him.

Mark Arends is wonderful in the role. He channels a not-quite-rightness which is perfect for this mercurial creature, slave to his own passions. He made the journey quite believable, handled the language impeccably and made every relationship seem sensible and believable.

Michael Marcus is sensational as Valentine, tall, stick-thin, lost and in love. He oozes charisma and style and makes Valentine a hero for all seasons. His speech about Silvia is dazzlingly delivered, all the angst and ardent heat of love crystallised and swirling, eyes wide and heart bursting. Again, everything about the performance was true and engaging. A fine, fine performance.

But even more dazzling were the wonderful female leads. Sarah Macrae makes Silvia fiery, determined, intelligent and principled. Not to mention drop dead gorgeous. Her rebuke of Proteus over his abandoning Julia was simply wonderful. And her contempt for Turio, fear of her father, the Duke of Milan, and curiosity about Valentine all beautifully judged and played. She is first rate.

As is Pearl Chanda, who soars as Julia. She is delightful as the pretty Verona girl with lots of suitors but a hankering for Proteus but really comes into her own when she cross-dresses, becoming Sebastian. Her still desolation at the moment when Proteus handed her the ring she had given him was mesmerising. Indeed, all of her work in trousers is exceptional.

These four young actors are all making their debut at the RSC this season in these difficult roles. They work wonderfully together and all are ones to watch.

As is Martin Bassindale who, as Valentine's servant, Speed, provides many of the laughs of the production. He is terrific. Witty and deft delivery of dialogue combines with a gift for physical comedy and expression to produce one of Shakespeare's memorable clowns.

Nicholas Gerard-Martin is gloriously awful as the hideous Turio, and his ghastly and garish “serenade” of Silvia, complete with rose hurling, chills the blood and makes every bone cringe. It's a study of brutish, entitled, charmless brutality. Wonderful.

Roger Morlidge enjoys himself as Launce, Proteus' servant, and, as a result, so does the audience. He gets the scenes with Crab, the dog, a canine scene-stealer (take a bow Mossup) and they are all full of laughs.

There are no weak links in this company. Everyone can act and speak the text with the kind of style necessary to ensure comprehensibility and interest – and, chiefly, understanding of the underlying themes.

Magically, there are no certainties at the end of the production. Valentine says that the pairs of lovers will marry – but how much of what Valentine has said will happen, actually has? Will this? What does Silvia really think? And will Julia forgive Proteus so easily? Should she?

Godwin makes The Two Gentlemen Of Verona endlessly engaging, charming and confronting. The action plays out; the thoughts about the action continue to mull and require consideration long after the house lights come on for the last time.

It's wonderful seeing a little play, virtually unknown, on the main stage at Stratford. An auspicious debut for Godwin and another good sign about Gregory Doran's stewardship of the RSC.

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