The Two Gentlemen of Verona
RSC at the Swan, Stratford
Thought to be among Shakespeare's earliest works, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of the strangest pieces the Stratford wordsmith ever wrote. There's speculation that the play printed in the First Folio is a version abbreviated for a performance on a special occasion. That would explain some of the inconsistencies in Two Gents which aren't usually evident in the Bard's writings.
For Shakespeare scholars, Two Gents shows glimpses of the talent that would make him the world's greatest playwright. In fact some of the plot lines are used with greater success in later plays such as Twelfth Night and As You Like It. But Two Gents is imperfect in language and construction, so it's not near the top of many people's list of favourite Shakespeare plays.
At first glance it isn't a production you'd expect the RSC to perform on its mobile-theatre tour which has been visiting leisure centres and sports halls across the country. But it's proved popular because of the way it's been treated.
The company made the wise move of bringing in a director who's making her RSC debut. Fiona Buffini obviously wanted to make an impression and she's pulled off an eye-catching success.
She's moved the action to the 1930s and brought in a band who create an atmosphere reminiscent of dance halls, cocktail bars and jazz clubs. It leads to impressive dance routines, high jinks and plenty of glamour. This just about compensates for the lulls in the action which at times can test the staying power of the audience.
When Michael Boyd took over as the RSC's artistic director, he placed the emphasis on verse-speaking. That has been a consistent feature of the company's productions over the past 18 months. Two Gents is no exception; the text is paramount even though the treatment of the play is fresh and vivacious.
Two Gents is being performed in rep with Julius Caesar and the comedy allows some of the cast who have minor roles in the Roman tragedy to showcase their different talents. Alex Avery (Valentine) and Laurence Mitchell (Protius) are excellent as the two friends who are rivals in love for the dazzling, svelte Rachel Pickup (Sylvia). However, I found Vanessa Ackerman, the spurned Julia who disguises herself as a boy when she follows Proteus to Milan, petulant and too juvenile, particularly in the first half.
Two Gents enables Zubin Varla to show his versatility. He was a fiery Brutus; here he is exceptional as the foolish Thurio, chosen as a potential husband for Sylvia by her father. His expressionful face lights up the stage whenever he appears.
There are also commendable performances by Simon Watts as the boyish, cheeky servant Speed, Andrew Melville as the doleful Launce and Brigid Zengeni as Julia's insolent waiting-woman Luceta.
A word of praise too for the musicians, especially Chris Storr on trumpet and Malcolm Newton on keyboard who give the production a classy feel. The song Who Is Sylvia? can come over as an intrusion; here it's given a superb arrangement which makes it an integral part of the production.
Two Gents may not have the appeal of some of Shakespeare's later works. Buffini gives it the energy and sparkle it needs to win over a new generation of fans.
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" runs at the Swan until February 26th, then tours to Davidson College (USA), Dorchester, Ollerton, Burgess Hill, Forres, Portsmouth, Dawlish and Truro.
Reviewer: Steve Orme