Shakespeare’s Bookends – Part One

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 23 August 2012

Shakespeare’s Bookends from Perfect Shadow Mingled Yarn was a project involving alternate performances of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Two Noble Kinsmen. The purpose was to juxtapose these two plays from the beginning and end of Shakespeare’s career, which share the theme of love rivalry. The same cast of young actors performed in both productions but with different directors, this one under the control of Rafaella Marcus.

The Brockley Jack pub theatre was arranged with a steep rake of seating round three sides of a standard black box space. The play was set in a present day corporate environment with desks and business suits in evidence.

A prologue showed a group of young people partying to music, with Valentine (Elliot Fitzpatrick) on the receiving end of a beer funnel. This then changed abruptly to the opening scene between Valentine and Proteus (Fraser Wall) in which Valentine, here visibly older than Proteus, announced his departure for Milan.

Proteus’ knockabout conversation with Speed was cut. Continuing with the next scene at Julia’s house (1.2), Julia (Lucy Fyffe) sang along to the radio in her room as maid Lucetta (Laura Elsworthy) wandered in with a vacuum cleaner. When praising Proteus above all Julia’s other suitors, her version of “I have no other, but a woman’s reason. I think him so because I think him so” was excellently done.

Julia received, rejected, retrieved and tore up Proteus’ letter. An interpolated dumb show at the end of the scene saw her hand a letter to Proteus and kiss him, all of which established their relationship.

But after saving time by cutting lines, the production then wasted time with a laborious set change. An office desk complete with telephone and a full set of accessories was positioned (1.3). Panthino spent some time unnecessarily playing with the desk ornaments before being interrupted by Proteus’ father Antonio. Proteus was sent off to join Valentine in Milan.

The Duke’s court in Milan was also represented as an office requiring another set change (2.1). Everyone wore business attire, including Sylvia (Amelia Kirk) who briefly sauntered across the stage, prompting an exchange between Valentine and Speed (Henryk Roberts) in which the former admitted to loving her.

Valentine failed to grasp that in fulfilling Silvia’s request to write a letter to her love, he had inadvertently written one to himself. There was a comical moment when Speed explained this to him and the proverbial light went on in his head.

After a brief scene in which Proteus and Julia kissed, made out and exchanged rings (2.2) there was an equally brief comic interlude with Launce (Matthew Cosgrove) griping his surly companion Crab, a small stuffed dog (2.3).

There was some fun as Launce tried to relate his story using shoes to represent the characters, but this could have been wackier. The final few lines with Panthino were cut.

The executives Silvia, Valentine, Thurio gathered for a meeting around the office table (2.4). This corporate setting with its unwritten rules of decorum was a good way of evoking the formality of the Duke’s court. Thurio exchanged silent, snarky looks with Valentine which developed into open, vocal rivalry over Silvia whose father the duke favoured Thurio.

The Duke (Tom Durant-Pritchard) arrived to chair the meeting and introduced Proteus, but instead of greeting his friend Valentine the young man immediately focussed his attention on Silvia.

The scene between servants Speed and Launce was cut (2.5).

Feelings

Proteus agonised at great length about the implications of his feelings for new love Silvia. His end soliloquy from 2.4, about how the nail of one affection drives out a similar nail of another affection, was combined with his soliloquy scene 2.6.

Additionally, this combined speech was intercut with the dialogue between Julia and Lucetta in 2.7 so that Proteus avowal of love for Silvia and abandonment of Julia was ironically interspersed with Julia expressing her hopes of seeing Proteus again.

Having decided to pursue Proteus, Julia disguised herself as a male page and changed behind a screen into a tracksuit and hoodie outfit with glasses. Proteus vowed to inform the Duke of rival Valentine’s plans to elope with Silvia.

Proteus was not shown informing the Duke at the start of 3.1, instead the third act began with Valentine walking casually past the Duke, who called him back and made him sit at the desk. This was the setting for the Duke’s sadistic trick to get Valentine to reveal his plan as if it were advice.

Having sprung his trap the Duke found the rope under Valentine’s long coat and then banished Valentine at gunpoint. For some inexplicable reason the Duke left the gun behind for Valentine to pick it up. We were left wondering whether he was contemplating suicide when he said “why not death?”

But then he aimed the gun away from himself saying “I fly not death”. Proteus saw Valentine with the weapon and swiftly disarmed him saying “Friend Valentine, a word” with all the preceding dialogue with Launce cut. This was very effective. The concluding sequence between Speed and Launce was cut.

Scene 3.2 in which the Duke entrusts Proteus with the task of persuading Silvia to love Thurio was cut.

The outlaws in the forest became here a gang of robbers operating in a sleazy bar (4.1). Valentine paid a visit without Speed and found himself on the receiving end of the lascivious attentions of a woman who pretended to seduce him in order to put him off his guard. This enabled her companions to attempt a robbery. But finding him a penniless outcast and admiring his breeding, they determined to make him their leader.

The disguised Julia was brought by the Host to see Proteus sing and play the guitar for Silvia (4.2). Julia looked devastated, particularly when Proteus told Silvia that Julia was dead.

The short scene between Silvia and Elgamour (4.3) was cut, this Silvia not requiring a travelling companion to seek out Valentine. The production continued with the second Launce and Crab scene (4.4). This worked much better than the first as the simple story of the dog’s unhygienic misdeed was essentially funnier.

Proteus employed the disguised Julia to send the very ring she had given him as a love token to Silvia. Julia was very convincing in her soliloquy about her self-effacing desire to perform this errand.

A fluid change of location was achieved by leaving the desk in position, which made some of the earlier time-consuming set changes look even more superfluous.

Instead of Silvia passing through, Julia (still disguised) sought out Silvia and found her sitting at her writing desk. Silvia expressed no desire to hurt Julia to which she replied, “She thanks you”. Her recovery from inadvertently outing herself was funny as she teased Silvia, describing the supposedly absent Julia as being identical in stature. An inquiry as to how well the messenger knew Julia evoked the response “Almost as well as I do know myself”.

The brief scene with Silvia and Elgamour 5.1 was cut, and in the following scene (5.2) the Duke instructed Proteus to go after Silvia, with the disguised Julia following him.

The stage was strewn with cans and rubbish to represent the wilds of the forest in which the outlaws abducted Silvia (5.3).

She was immediately freed by Proteus just offstage (5.4), but Valentine was not present to see this happen. Proteus grappled Silvia to the ground in an attempted rape, Valentine pulled him away and struck him. Without the fainting fit of the original text, Julia stepped forward to return the ring to Proteus that he had given her. Proteus’ questioning obliged Julia to reveal her true identity.

Proteus and Julia were reconciled, but the text was truncated immediately after that.

Thurio and Duke did not appear, so Silvia’s hand in marriage was not disputed between Valentine and Thurio, nor did the Duke award her to Valentine.

The performance concluded with Valentine talking of “this happy close” but with Silvia spotlit and looking traumatised, the final moments of the performance were doleful. This was at odds with Valentine’s closing remark about “one mutual happiness”.

Conclusions

Running straight through without an interval, the production told the story effectively and the contemporary setting worked well.

The slightly reconfigured ending showed that some thought had gone into making the character of Silvia more credible. She appeared marked by events rather than simply dismissing the attack upon her.

However, there was too much emphasis on realistic set dressing so that scene changes were slow and laborious.

An audience is capable of interpreting the mildest of clues about location and the production could have been speeded up with less clutter.

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