The Two Gentlemen of Verona

William Shakespeare
Nós do Morro
Barbican Pit
(2008)

Production photo

Does Art have the ability to transcend language? This question was on my mind when watching the exuberant, sexy, exciting - and at times baffling - performance of what is possibly Shakespeare's first play (and, as an aside, the first to be performed at the reconstructed New Globe) by Nós do Morro ('us from the hillside'), brainchild of actor Guti Fraga who formed the company 22 years ago.

The plot in its traditional form looks at the bonds of male friendship through its protagonists, Valentine and Proteus who, independently of each other, leave Verona for Milan to seek life and experience, fall for the same girl - Silvia - despite Valentine seeing her first and Proteus's professed love for Julia (the woman he has left behind in Verona); she, true to comic genre, assumes a male disguise to seek Proteus and test his loyalty.

The play can be confusing enough in Elizabeth English: this interpretation is spoken in Portuguese, interspersed with traditional Brazilian songs sung and played by various members of a fine and talented cast, and aided by subtitles projected in large font on a screen above the players.

And this is the only fault in the production: written language in 'shorthand' cannot do justice to the de-familiarised beauty of the words being spoken (unless, of course, you happened to be one of the many Spanish/Portuguese audience members); the translation is at times a bizarre mélange of Elizabethan 'methinks' and basic English vernacular, and tended to play a few seconds behind the action.

Nevertheless, there is much to love. The lack of props and scenery is very 'Shakespearean' and centres on the inventive use of colourful materials that, draped in a certain way, transform a 'commoner' into a Duke; black silk drapery, 'worked' by two actresses to form an opening and closing reminiscent of the Globe's Tiring House doors; actors, straddling their colleagues shoulders, with tops pulled over heads and hands strategically placed on bare chests, became the marble statues of Milan.

Most joyous are the musical interludes that work as a 'bridge' between acts - in particular, 'Verona Milan' that has been in my head all day; and a second shift to Verona with players calling out the town's name like market hawkers, leaving us in no doubt about location.

This is truly an ensemble piece, with actors using their bodies as much as their language to tell the story, but mention must be made of Diogo Sales who, as Crab, captures 'dog-like' nuances to a fine degree.

In answering my own question, it becomes clear that one cannot split one's brain between reading lines and watching and assimilating the ideas conveyed by drama. In trying to follow the dialogue, the performance is missed. And, the performance deserves to be seen.

So, read a synopsis if Shakespeare is your thing; or, accept that 'global Shakespeare' can be very different to what we know, ignore the subtitles, and immerse yourself in the passion of the players and the magic of movement music and dance - which is never lost in translation.

Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler