Royal Welsh Colege of Music and Drama, Cardiff
Thursday, 1 December 2016
Director: Caroline Byrne
Review by @LucyMenon
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s first works and as such is often held up as an example of the immature playwright experimenting with ideas that will later return in his more established comedies. To an extent this is true as we are presented with a love triangle, a disguised boy-heroine and an escape to the green world of the forest where all the knots can be untangled and the correct pairs can be united in marriage. These are plot devices that will be used in later comedies such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This play however, also causes consternation in its seeming disregard for women and the value it places on homosocial bonds between men and the importance of friendship over and above that of male-female relationships.
A reflection from Johann Gregory:
Shakespeare’s play speaks to our own time in a very unsettling way. Near the opening of the play, for example, the heroine Julia is represented wishing she hadn’t returned an unread letter via her servant:
And yet I would I had o’erlooked the letter.
It were a shame to call her back again
And pray her to a fault for which I chid her.
What fool is she, that knows I am a maid
And would not force the letter to my view,
Since maids in modesty say ‘No’ to that
Which they would have the profferer construe ‘Ay’.
Julia says that she wishes that she had read the letter and hadn’t rejected it. The servant is a fool, she says, not to force the letter on her when the servant knows that she must for modesty’s sake say no to something, even if she really wants it. Of course, this moment of ‘forcing’ something on a maid could be easily read differently without too much of a stretch of the imagination. ‘What do you mean?’ is Justin Bieber’s highly popular song, controversial for arguably promoting a rape culture. Sofia Lyons wrote in a blog for The Huffington Post that
the lyrics perpetuate the idea that unwanted advances or sexual misperceptions are at the fault of the woman because she wasn’t clear about her intentions or a man thought she wanted it because she couldn’t ‘make up her mind’.
So in a year that saw such a high profile case at Cardiff Crown Court concerning a charge of rape that rested on the issue of consent, the language and actions presented in Shakespeare’s play are uncomfortable to say the least. Of course, it remains an open question how disturbing this ‘comedy’ would have actually been in its own time to those who viewed it – apparently many, now, will listen comfortably to Bieber’s song.
Two friends, Proteus and Valentine each have their own love, but when Proteus meets Valentine’s paramour, Silvia, he seems to forget his own beloved, Julia. He reveals Valentine’s plot to elope with Silvia to her father and this results in his friend’s exile. In the meantime, Julia, who has been at home, decides to risk her reputation and follow Proteus to Italy, disguised as a page boy. The play culminates in the attempted rape of Silvia by Proteus. After firstly chastising Proteus for his behaviour and vowing to sever friendship, Valentine is quickly swayed when Proteus begs forgiveness and within a few lines, the men have reinstated their friendship and, most disconcertingly, Valentine has promised that ‘All that was mine in Silvia I give thee’ (5.4, line 81). Frequently, this line is cut from productions as it is at odds with Valentine’s earlier behaviour and also emphasises the uncomfortable ease with which men can consider women as possessions and commodities. The resultant marriages, or implied marriages at any rate, are therefore troublesome as we are left wondering whether or not the commitment to the women will be true and if the love the women bear the men is indeed, well placed.
With such a depth of characterisation to explore and treacherous issues to negotiate, I was interested to see how the cast at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama would interpret this play. Using an interesting mix of the ancient world, through the use of stone-effect and pillars in the set and contrasting it with a more contemporary feel through the use of costume and music, the production quickly established the idea of incongruity that runs through the play itself. The start of the play opens with Proteus (Joe Wiltshire Smith) bidding farewell to Valentine (Aly Cruickshank); this was played for laughs and in a sarcastic tone that reflected well the notion of the masculine bravado of youth which was strengthened further with the secret handshake the two had which was a nice touch. This gesture was repeated throughout and served to show the close bond between the two friends which later makes Proteus’s betrayal even more shocking. Julia’s tumult over receiving a letter from Proteus was extremely well delivered by Lola Petticrew and bringing the letter to members of the audience to show it off was a source of amusement. The fact that Proteus also did this was a nice mirroring move. Having the lovers exchange rings with an echo-like voiceover for their lines added a dreamlike quality to proceedings and made Proteus’s departure seem part of a fairytale which obviously is later undercut by his infidelity.
As with all good comedies, we have the scenes with the servants, and in this particular play, we have Launce (Charlotte O’Leary), complete with his dog, Crab. Here, Luke Rhodri, completely excelled himself by having the tricky task of playing Crab, but executing it well. The use of music was good, with a tense background sound of something like a police siren and radios to create a jarring atmosphere while Proteus debates love and friendship and what he is meant to do with his feelings. When he screws up a letter and throws it to the floor, coupled with the line of Julia being dead, the action is heavy indeed. I feel a special mention should go to Tom Murton who played Silvia’s father, the Duke of Milan. Throughout, he delivered his lines well and commanded a very believable relationship with each character he encountered whether that was his daughter, his friends or Valentine.
Unfortunately, there was quite a lot of confusion as to whether or not there was an interval in this production. The house lights went down and several people got up, but the actors were back on stage very quickly and the lights then dimmed. Valentine and Speed (Elysia Welch) were shown in slow motion fleeing to the forest in exile and in the foreground, Julia was changing her costume to become a boy. Whilst it is very probable that this was a time-filler, as there was no need for either of these processes to be staged for so long, I found it uncomfortable that the audience was leaving and entering and actually missing a silent showing of the despair and the lengths to which lovers will go for each other.
In the second half, we were treated to an entertaining spectacle of a band and song sung by Thurio (Louis Carrington) and Proteus to try and woo Siliva (Hannah Barker) who was sat in the balcony with the audience. There were many instances where the characters came into the audience and I felt that this worked really well as it made the audience feel more involved and complicit with the action. In order to be with Valentine, Silvia enlists the help of Sir Eglamour (Luke Rhodri) who is supposed to be a man of great virtue and chastity who still mourns the death of his love. Silvia asks him to help her and, in this production, also kisses him deeply. I felt that this was an incongruous interpretation as the very point was that there was somebody truly chivalrous left to rely upon and that he does aid Silvia out of genuine care rather than seeking any kind of gratification. Silvia is also constantly confessing her love for Valentine, especially when rejecting Proteus’s advances, so it seems unrealistic and at odds with what should have been intended here. It would also be incredibly tragic if Silvia was meant to feel obliged to offer herself in this way to ensure Eglamour’s help.
However, as the play moved towards its disturbing denouement of Proteus attempting to take Silvia’s love by force, the four central characters held their roles incredibly well. It’s difficult to maintain the tension in this scene when the emotions alter so drastically in the space of a few lines. Both male leads convincingly delivered their lines, even though we are left feeling that it is an inappropriate reaction to events: is it really so simple to excuse your friend for nearly raping your partner just because he says “Forgive me”? Valentine’s line of offering Silvia to Proteus was kept in and served to cause distress and both women were shocked by the way the friends seem to value each other over them. Even though each couple was united in the end, the women did an excellent job of showing little enthusiasm for getting married. Silvia wraps her robe around Julia and continues the show of female solidarity that has been displayed throughout and Julia walks sombrely towards Proteus and in the final moments looks out into the audience, away from him, though he is gazing at her. Even Silvia and Valentine are at different ends of the stage and exit off different sides: promised to each other yet distanced by events.
A troubling play, dealt with in varying degrees of success in this production. But, ultimately, this was a thought-provoking staging that didn’t gloss over the unsettling aspects of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, instead opting to leave the audience with a complex set of emotions and unanswered questions.
This production runs until December 10th. Find out more and book tickets.