“They cannot both enjoy you”
Shakespeare completists should rejoice as Instant Classics are mounting the first major production of The Two Noble Kinsmen in London for over 15 years. Missing from the First Folio and co-credited to the Bard and John Fletcher, it often finds itself omitted from cycles such as the Globe’s Globe to Globe season back in 2012 but Wikipedia assures me it is kosher and given the chronology, it is more than likely that this tragicomedy was indeed Shakespeare’s final work.
It is often the case that lesser-performed works by playwrights collect dust for a reason and in the case of The Two Noble Kinsmen, it isn’t too hard to see why. Director David Cottis has trimmed it down to a sleek couple of hours and plays it in non-specific modern dress but it remains at its heart something of an oddity, an issue that this production can’t really address, even as it identifies a rich seam of bawdy humour and a brutal sense of sexual frustration.
Theban soldiers Palamon and Arcite are being held as prisoners of war by Theseus, Duke of Athens, but their close cousinly friendship is torn apart when they both fall for the Duke’s sister-in-law Emilia, a rivalry that is only intensified as they wangle their way separately out of jail and end up competing to the death for her hand. What larks. And as it is Jacobean Shakespeare, there’s a comedy doctor, a girl driven mad by love, a hapless wooer and various prayers offered up to the gods.
Cottis’ decision to stage things simply in Zoe Hammond’s abstract design works well in the space of the White Bear and in Richard Blackman’s earthy Palamon and Cavan Clarke’s erudite Arcite, has a fine pair of leads who sketch out the complex closeness of these two men. A real flourish comes in the ambitious fight work by David Broughton Davies which amplifies their physicality but it is asking too much for them to convince that they’d abandon all for Roanna Lewis’ Emilia, no matter how luminous.
And in one of the more bizarrely constructed sub-plots you’ll see, the daughter of the jailer falls madly in love with Palamon but is abandoned once she helps him escape and her madness thus becomes real. So far so Ophelia, but the vast majority of her scenes are conducted as monologues – Amy Tobias acquitting herself beautifully with personality and punch – which throws the structure off-kilter, even more so when she’s finally included in scenes with other people.
These other people are all played by three multi-roling actors – an economical choice to be sure but one which also challenged, especially since the plot was entirely new to me. Lanna Joffrey delineates her characters well, the quirky doctor and a deeply compassionate Hippolyta (Theseus’ wife of course…) both strong, and Robert Harding is lovely as the man who would woo the jailer’s daughter (for that is the character’s name…) despite her affliction. Simon Mitelman could perhaps afford to make the jailer and Theseus a little more distinct but he remains extremely well spoken throughout.
As hard as the cast and creatives work though – plangent Irish airs create real atmosphere and lines like “For I must lose my maidenhead by cock light” are given the readings they deserve – the play never really hangs together as a satisfying drama. I’m glad to be able to tick it off the list but I can’t say I’m hungering to see it again in a hurry.