Rowan recommends: The Two Gentlemen of Verona by Shakespeare’s Globe

I’ve decided to stop calling these things reviews, because they’re entirely restricted to shows I love. This is because I seem to be chronically incapable of stomping all over people’s artistic babies on the internet, just in case they read what I’ve written. So from now on, they’re officially ‘recommendations’, dubbed with the coveted Lyster Seal of Approval. 

I went to a Shakespeare play at a castle yesterday. I know, I’m living the Radio 4 dream. Wardour castle is monumentally difficult to find, as I discovered to my cost when I spent over an hour completing a 30-minute journey, and my friend got so entangled in the web of single-track lanes on the way that she missed out on the entire first half. The castle is worth finding, at least – it’s not big, but it’s pretty impressive, sticking out of the hillside like a broken tooth and surrounded by dramatically purple flowers.

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Even in my poor phone photography, it’s not bad-looking.

The pleasing setting meant that despite my somewhat meandering route, I was already well disposed towards the Globe’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona by the time it began, which was probably a good thing, because it was by no means what I’d expected. What I’d expected was swords and bodkins; what I got was a troupe of beige-clad Modern types sashaying on stage to a sixties-esque soundtrack, which was performed live in a tiny telly-box studio at the back of the set.

So there was that initial surprise, tempered only by the fact that I’d twigged from the set and presence of mics and a drumkit that it would be unusual. And then there was the usual period of acclimatisation into the world of a Shakespeare play. Despite being an Official Literature Graduate, I only really know French stuff. I’m therefore broadly unversed in the work of Shakespeare and have seen very, very few Bardic plays live, which means that it took me about ten minutes to get over the whole ‘dear lord they’re actually saying forsooth’ thing. But by the time I’d tuned in to the archaic language, I was glowing with the knowledge that this was a Good Production.

It’s uncommonly lovely to feel like you’re in the hands of people who aren’t going to screw up through incompetence. Even if you don’t like what’s happening onstage, you can be pretty sure that it’s deliberate; someone, somewhere, has thought hard about it, and probably knows far more than you do about theatre. I find that this sense of being around true professionals removes the low-level discomfort that I always feel when watching even the best amateur productions or budget Edinburgh shows. Maybe I’m just a snob, but a well-established production company with an obviously excellent cast always allays my significant fear that I’m about to witness some kind of horrible artistic disaster from which the performers may never recover.

A certain level of quality also makes it easier to accept artistic choices that some might question. And setting The Two Gentlemen of Verona in the sixties, complete with fairly ludicrous outfits and an unconventional stage, was certainly a bold move. Adding music was even more so, especially turning some of the love letters into song. In my opinion, it was done brilliantly, but I wasn’t surprised to hear a number of grumbles from the audience, who I’m led to believe have been proffered ‘normal’ Shakespearean fare annually for the last four years. Clearly they were expecting the sanctity of the Bard to be respected, and were a bit nonplussed to see him trussed up in a loud floral dress, being jostled all over the place to music that’s reminiscent of Dire Straits and certainly a far cry from lutesong.

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Photographic evidence.

Here’s the thing, though. Shakespeare wasn’t and isn’t sacred. Of course there are sublime moments in the plays, but by insisting on always using perfectly Elizabethan-looking actors, speaking in received pronunciation (which, incidentally, is historically inaccurate anyway), you lose a lot of the breadth that could be there.

As with Voltaire, the idea that Shakespeare is out-and-out highbrow is a misconception. He’s highbrow a lot of the time, but he’s also incredibly lowbrow. The fact that the language is old and hard to understand doesn’t make it all lofty. Shakespeare writes entire scenes that revolve around knob jokes. Lots of his characters are bloody idiots. Hamlet is one long wail of “muuumm, nobody understands me”. The plays might often be about nobles, but good old Willy wrote for the masses. And, by the way, he’d probably have sniggered at me calling him Willy.

The upshot of that little digression is that I think The Globe’s re-setting of The Two Gentlemen of Verona works beautifully, because it wriggles out of the traditionalism that can be a barrier to seeing the characters as realistic humans. Although I’m still not quite sure why the Globe took the particular liberties that they did, their little timehop was used effectively to make very old words relatable to people like me and you, who weren’t around in the 1500s. They’ve made the words their own, and if you view that as some kind of theft or desecration, then for goodness’ sake stop going to the theatre and buy a novel.

It helps that the cast were all excellent, and impressive musicains to boot. Dharmesh Patel’s Proteus was beautifully rendered, subtly bringing out an infuriating strand of self-justification, and gradually shifting the character from half of an endearing bromance into something much more twisted. Adam Keast’s Speed was hilarious and cheeky. And the women made the best of an unpromising role in the script, with a convincingly exasperated servant and a painfully moving affinity between the two beleaguered ‘heroines’.

Finally, I take my hat off to whoever decided to use the stage directions to swerve off in an unexpected but inspired reimagining of the script’s ‘happy ending’. I won’t tell you much about this* in case you get to see the production, but suffice to say that it remains true to the words and themes of the original (I think – haven’t actually read the original), whilst acknowledging the fact that yes, things have moved on a bit since half a millennium ago. All in all, a pretty great evening.

*By all means message me if you can’t bear the mystery, but I loathe spoilers and try to keep them off my blog.

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Have a bonus castle pic, because it really is pretty great.

Now I shall stop, although I haven’t said half as much as I could’ve done about the things I liked, or mentioned the individual cast members as much as they deserve. But you’re probably sick of the metaphorical sound of my voice by now. There will be a more normal post soon, when I get some time off from all this arduous cultural stuff. 

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