The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan, Stratford
It is interesting to compare the respective fates of Shakespeare's two early comedies The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Love's Labours Lost. For many years both plays languished in the doldrums of neglect, sneered at by literary critics and rarely performed, but in the late 1940's Love's Labours Lost made an astonishing comeback and is now firmly established in the Shakespeare repertory. Two Gents, a play best known for its shambolic plot and canine supporting role, has so far failed to emulate its success. Yet Fiona Buffini's sparkling revival for the RSC reveals it to be a work of considerable (if naïve) charm, not exactly a neglected masterpiece but certainly capable of providing an enjoyable evening at the theatre.
Buffini's production sets the play in the 1930's, a brilliantly successful device that provides ample opportunities for music, dancing and screwball comedy. Lifelong friends Valentine (Alex Avery) and Proteus (Laurence Mitchell) leave their quiet lives in Verona to disport themselves in the high society world of Milan, where both fall in love with the aristocratic Sylvia (Rachel Pickup, the epitome of 30s glamour). Proteus' former love, the loyal but not-terribly-exciting Julia (Vanessa Ackerman), follows him to Milan disguised as a boy only to discover his duplicity. The subsequent entanglements with outlaws, outraged fathers and incontinent dogs are too complicated to describe in detail, but Buffini succeeds in keeping the more absurd plot elements in check without sacrificing the pathos of the entwined love stories.
The four young principals do a fine job and the supporting cast aren't far behind. I particularly enjoyed the outrageously vain Sir Thurio of Zubin Varla, bursting with self-esteem and lavishly anointed with brillantine. The chirpy young Speed of Simon Watts is nicely offset by Andrew Melville's lugubrious Launce, and although Crab the dog (Ria) looks too old and sleepy to cause any serious trouble he obviously won the hearts of the audience.
At the Swan Theatre until 26 February, then touring to Davidson College (USA), Dorchester, Ollerton, Burgess Hill, Forres, Portsmouth, Dawlish and Truro
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson