“Foster’d, illumin’d, cherish’d, kept alive”
I’ve become a bit of a dab hand at making work trips coincide with theatrical opportunities and as with last year, the stars aligned to put me in Newcastle at the same time as the RSC, and to see a Shakespeare play I’d never seen before as well (only six more to go and one of those will come this weekend). Two Gentlemen of Verona doesn’t get anywhere near as much exposure as some of the others, a recognition that as an early play – possibly even the first he ever wrote – it bears the marks of a playwright still very much working his way into his craft.
It also plants the seeds of what would grow into several of his hallmark devices – the liberating freedom of the forest to solve the problems of the town or court, a woman dressed as a man, sudden and random declarations of love – but they’re deployed here with a little clumsiness as the quartet of lovers here wind their way through the trials and tribulations of love’s young dream. Where Simon Godwin’s production succeeds though is in embracing these issues and shifting the tone of the play from a comedy to more of a problem play.
This ambiguity really does work and is clearly emphasised in the final reconciliations – it is no given that this is a genuinely happy ending and this complexity, paired with a modern-dress version from Godwin, manages to make the play work in a way I can’t imagine a traditional one ever would. Mark Arends’ Proteus is darn well near to being a dastardly villain as he betrays Pearl Chanda’s appealing Julia something rotten, and Michael Marcus’ Valentine matches well with Sarah MacRae’s Silvia, even with a less fascinating storyline.
Then there’s a dog. Which seemingly everyone loved but me. Thank the Lord that Will got out of that habit early on as there’s something bizarre in the hold that animals seem to hold over theatre-going audiences, to the point where there’ll happily ignore everything and everyone aside from the canine critter. (I’m not an animal person, can you tell.) I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to see this play again but I’m pleased that my first experience thereof was with as intelligent a production as this.