The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Globe, 10 May 2012
When Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu appeared out of the trap door in Elizabethan breeches carrying their trunk, they stared in astonishment at the Globe audience that had gathered to watch their Shona version of Shakespeare’s early comedy.
This was quite reasonable, as the audience was in turn quite astonished at the idea that two actors were going to represent the dozen or so roles, including a dog.
They bowed as if by instinct and the generous crowd applauded them for that simple act. They unpacked their trunk taking items of clothing and hanging them on a large rope tied across the tiring house doors. Each item signified a particular character and over the course of the performance the same character was often performed by both of them. Though for Proteus and Valentine they simply used their basic costume and announced who they were.
Denton began a prologue to the play in English, a pastiche of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, with phrases like: “in fair Verona where we lay our scene” and “two friends both alike in dignity”. But he was admonished by Tonderai who insisted that they proceed in Shona, and who then provided Shona translation for the Denton’s basic outline of the story of Valentine and Proteus.
It takes a great deal of skill and confidence for two performers to make the Globe stage feel fully occupied over two hours, and fortunately that was exactly what these two possessed.
The performance became as much a showcase for their two-handed technique as it was a presentation of the play. The non-Shona speakers understood the basics of the story and went along for the ride.
Proteus and Valentine were best friends from Verona. Valentine set off for Milan and there fell in love with Silvia. Back in Verona, Proteus fell in love with Julia, but was sent to Milan by his father. Once in Milan, he forgot Julia to become Valentine’s rival in love for Silvia. After some comic misunderstandings, all were eventually reconciled.
Silvia was represented by a long white glove; her maid Lucetta by a headband; Speed by a waistcoat; Launce by white powder sprinkled on his head; the Duke by a green beret; and Julia was signified by a brown wrap, worn around the waist, but then worn across the shoulder when she disguised herself as Sebastian.
They switched slowly and methodically between characters, which allowed the audience to absorb the transformation. But the handing over of letters and giving of rings was done more quickly. A letter would be picked up by a slap of the palm on the ground so that the palm then became the letter in question. A ring donor would snap their fingers, with the recipient snapping theirs an instant later to signify receipt.
The first scene was quite simple, just with Valentine and Proteus. Denton and Tonderai announced their character names and all was clear. Julia’s wrap was draped around the neck of a woman in the yard, who then became the subject of Proteus’ conversation.
Denton sang Single Ladies and got into the trunk to play Julia taking a bath, while Tonderai became Lucetta, who disparaged one of Julia’s suitors by indicating his small penis size with her fingers.
Newly arrived in Milan, Valentine sang about his loneliness to a pretty tune played on a thumb piano. His solitude did not last long, as he soon met Silvia and their instant attraction led to them bogling.
Julia and Proteus were shown falling in love. The sudden kiss that Tonderai appeared to force on Denton at the end of their characters’ tryst got a big audience cheer.
Launce was played by Denton, who sprinkled his head and face with white powder to become the character. Tonderai crouched and panted to portray Launce’s dog, Crab. Launce tried to explain how he had departed from his family using shoes to represent individual relatives. These shoes were sourced from some bemused men in the audience. Launce smelt one of the shoes and commented on how it reminded him of his mother’s breath.
Some excellent comedy arose from Denton’s portrayal of Julia practising at being male when disguising herself to pursue Proteus. She tried out various modes of masculinity, including an imitation of rapper 50 Cent. She eventually decided to abandon an obvious swagger and deep voice.
At times the absurdity of their project itself became a subject of comedy. Getting to a particularly knotty plot point, Tonderai took pity on the non-Shona speakers. He looked up at the English titles describing the action and said to the audience “These subtitles will not help you with this” before offering some broad hints.
Later when Proteus told the Duke about Valentine’s elopement plans, Denton’s Duke strode out in the yard to take up a seat in the lower gallery, prompting Tonderai to ask Denton to stop upstaging him.
The outlaws in the forest who ambushed Valentine and Speed were played by groundlings plucked from the yard. Tonderai moved their arms and bodies, and spoke their words like a ventriloquist.
Julia arrived in Milan in disguise. She and the Hostess of the inn hid behind the trunk as Proteus praised Silvia at her balcony. Some humour was derived from the Denton taking a long time to get up to the Globe balcony to play Silvia.
A second appearance by Launce and Crab the dog was amusing but the central joke about how Launce took the blame for Crab peeing under a dining table was not conveyed by the titles.
Sir Elgamour was not a noble knight, but instead an unreliable taxi driver. After helping Silvia to escape from the palace into the forest in pursuit of Valentine, he tried it on with her.
Proteus’s rival for Silvia, Thurio, was played by Denton as a Nigerian who played tunelessly on the thumb piano while trying to write a sonnet.
Some of the complexity of the story was removed as a title informed us that all the main characters had ended up in the forest.
Proteus (Tonderai) tried to force himself on Silvia (Denton) in quite a moving and cleverly performed scene that exemplified the Two Gents style.
Denton wore Silvia’s trademark white glove and fell to the ground. Tonderai stood over her and began to take the glove off. This enabled Denton to escape and transform into Valentine, who proceeded to rescue Silvia by taking the glove that now stood for her from the clutches of Tonderai’s Proteus.
The disguised Julia revealed herself and the shamed Proteus was reconciled to her.
A final tableau of Julia comforting Silvia as the lights fade provided the production’s comment on Silvia’s apparent onstage silence from the moment of her attempted rape until the end of the play.
This production had existed in English for several years before its translation into Shona for Globe to Globe. It was gratifying to see it fully as Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe.