The Two Noble Kinsmen, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 24 August 2012
A stark warning awaited anyone entering the theatre to see the concluding Shakespeare bookend, directed by Matthew Monaghan. A notice pinned outside read: “Please note that this production contains scenes of a strong sexual nature”.
The small set was dominated by four stubby concrete pillars from which steel reinforcements projected. A raised platform made from wooden pallets was located upstage.
The production cut the prologue and most of act one to begin at 2.1 with Palamon (Elliot Fitzpatrick) and Arcite (Fraser Wall) in prison. When the audience entered, Palamon and Arcite were already on the pallets wearing modern army uniforms with their hands manacled. The Jailer’s Daughter (Laura Elsworthy) sat silently and watched them from a distance.
Palamon tried to pick away at his manacles, while the younger Arcite lay prone and motionless. After a while Palamon tried to rouse Arcite. Getting no response, he shook him in panic. The Jailer’s Daughter then left.
The Jailer (Henryk Roberts) and Wooer entered talking about the prisoners. The prose dialogue of the text was supplemented to include a brief explanation of how Palamon and Arcite had been imprisoned by Theseus for fighting for Thebes.
The Jailer’s Daughter keenly pointed out the difference between her love object Palamon and “the lower of the twain” Arcite, who at that point was on the ground below Palamon. She stormed out complaining of the “difference of men”, a disdainful comment on the Wooer her father was trying to foist on her.
Palamon and Arcite engaged in a long dialogue as they contemplated their imprisonment (2.2). Arcite concluded that “We are one another’s wife” prompting them to kiss each other modestly within a context of male affection.
Emilia (Amelia Kirk) entered, but with Hippolyta (Lucy Fyffe) not her Woman. This sequence began with Emilia’s “This garden has a world of pleasures” and continued to her “Men are mad things” with the Woman’s address to Emilia as “madam” being replaced with Hippolyta referring to her as “sister”.
The action continued with the conversation between Emilia and Hippolyta from 1.3, starting from approximately l.33 amended to read “Have you observed Pirithous since our great lord departed?”
This continued to the end of 1.3. Once Emilia had explained about “the true love ‘tween maid and maid” and Hippolyta had concluded that “you shall never, like the maid Flavina, love any that’s called man”, Emilia accompanied her “I am sure I shall not” with a move to kiss Hippolyta, her sister-in-law.
Characterising Emilia as a lesbian made the subsequent arrangements to marry her off to one of Palamon and Arcite look ever stranger given her resistance to both of them. But this interpretation was somewhat strained by her subsequent comparison of the two men, which did show her to be appreciative, at least temporarily, of their attractions.
The staging clearly presented Palamon as the first to notice Emilia, with Arcite only becoming aware of her some time afterwards. After the women had exited, there was a spat between them about who had first dibs on Emilia. Despite Palamon’s assertion “I saw her first” being true, the immaturity of its expression added a note of comedy to the argument, which ended in them fighting.
The Jailer took Arcite to see the Duke prompting Palamon to fret that his rival was about to be betrothed to Emilia. Even when the Jailer told him that his companion had been banished, Palamon persisted in thinking that Arcite would find a way to return for Emilia. The Jailer also informed Palamon that he was to be moved away from the garden, prompting him to square up to the Jailer to object to his “pelting, scurvy news”.
Arcite set out on the road with his rucksack (2.3). He sat at the edge of the side seating and bemoaned his banishment. The rest of scene comprising his encounter with the countrymen was cut.
The Jailer’s Daughter spoke in soliloquy about her intense love for Palamon and her intention to set him free, an opportunity for Laura Elsworthy to really shine (2.4).
Duke Theseus (Tom Durant-Pritchard) sat on his throne up on the dais as Hippolyta stood at his side with one hand on his shoulder (2.5). Below them Emilia crouched to watch the still banished but disguised Arcite defeat an opponent at hand wrestling.
Emilia spoke of Arcite’s good looks, but purely in terms of how his face resembled that of his “wondrous handsome” mother. Hippolyta immediately countered by asserting that his mind and body took after his father. This looked like a continuation of the previous tension between them, with the Sapphic Emilia only appreciating Arcite’s feminine traits.
Theseus popped food into victor Arcite’s mouth and seemed to enjoy touching him. He grasped Arcite by the face obliging the young man to pull the Duke’s hands away.
Pirithous (Matthew Cosgrove) introduced Arcite to Emilia and she looked blankly at this crude matchmaking. This was a perfectly rational response to such treatment.
Theseus’ recent pawing at Arcite made sense of the precise terms in which he recommended the young man to Emilia, saying that she now had “a servant, that, if I were a woman, would be master”. Her “I hope, too wise for that, sir” was another blank rejection of the ongoing attempts to marry her off.
The Jailer’s Daughter had another great soliloquy scene in which, fresh from liberating Palamon, she rushed towards us defiantly exclaiming “Let all the dukes and all the devils roar, he is at liberty!” (2.6). Her exuberance at her success turned to moving tenderness when she explained “I am then kissing the man they look for”.
Theseus began the May ceremony with a solemn incantation of the third stanza of “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun” from Cymbeline (3.1). The last two lines were also chanted by the rest before departing, leaving Arcite alone to point out that the others were scattered and lost. The word “laund” was changed to “land”. The dust reference in the last lines “All lovers young, all lovers must consign to thee, and come to dust” was picked up towards the end.
The freed Palamon found Arcite and wrapped his manacles around his rival’s neck as he wrangled with him over Emilia. They agreed to fight each other in due course to settle the issue.
The Jailer’s Daughter spoke again in soliloquy about her sadness at not finding Palamon (3.2). The depth of her love was demonstrated by its absolute focus “But for one thing I care for nothing and that’s Palamon”. She wondered if he had been eaten by wolves.
Arcite brought sustenance to make Palamon fit for their combat (3.3). Arcite offered him a drink from a hip flask and a bap wrapped in cling film, which he woofed down. They rested, having agreed not to mention Emilia, the source of their dispute. Arcite sank his head onto Palamon’s back, which Palamon interpreted as Arcite sighing for Emilia. Enraged at this, Palamon stood up and threw the food away. The pair arranged to fight two hours hence.
The sequence of Jailer’s Daughter soliloquies came to a head as she appeared completely mad, driven to distraction by her frustrated love for Palamon (3.4) She rested on one of the columns to utter a stream of pretty nonsense. She describe an imagined shipwreck to the main body of the audience and then sat at the edge of the stage left benches to talk to those there about the “fine frog” that would answer her questions.
The entire scene 3.5 with the Schoolmaster and his entertainment was cut.
Arcite brought sticks for the fight with Palamon, which they used, with none of the armour mentioned in the text, to fight quite convincingly (3.6). Theseus suddenly broke in upon them without the sound of his arrival being noticed by Arcite as in text.
Theseus was spitting angry at the escapee and the banished man who both kneeled. When Emilia heard Palamon say that they were fighting over her, she turned away feeling sick and was comforted by Hippolyta. Theseus directed his ire against Arcite and held a dagger at his throat, bending him back but also caressing his hair.
Hippolyta begged Emilia to intervene, but Emilia’s sexuality meant she was not spurred by love to assist. She said quite coldly that the “misadventure of their own eyes kills ’em”, but finally she found pride in womanly pity and tried to stop the killing, with a sisterly remark that “the powers of all women will be with us”.
Hippolyta, Emilia, then also Pirithous begged, while Arcite panicked as if on point of death. This was very exciting edge of seat stuff. Theseus seized Arcite in a neck lock with one arm, whose hand held the threatening dagger, while his other hand clasped Emilia’s head, so that all three of them were held together in a tight formation.
Emilia begged Theseus to banish both the rivals on condition they forgot her. He consented to this, but the kinsmen were vehement that they would rather die than abandon Emilia. Palamon in particular looked sick at the suggestion that he should forgo her.
Theseus began to relish his power to determine men’s fates. Convinced that they would kill each other, he asked Emilia to select one with the proviso that the other would die. His “make choice then” looked and sounded as crazy as the idea would be received today. Emilia could not choose, so Theseus arranged for them to return and fight to decide who lived.
The mood became very tense and Emilia’s agreement to the plan “Yes, I must, sir, or else both miscarry” showed just how little choice she had in the matter.
Both 4.1 and 4.2 were cut with the action continuing as the Doctor (Matthew Cosgrove again) came to examine the Jailer’s Daughter (4.3).
Consumed by her love for Palamon, the Jailer’s Daughter sang distractedly and talked at random. She looked in the Doctor’s mouth insisting he should have a silver coin “or no ferry”. The Wooer was convinced that he stood a chance with her, which later took on a sinister reality. The Doctor’s suggested treatment was to humour her and have someone talk to her in the guise of Palamon.
A gold metal plate was carried in ceremoniously by Theseus and banners were hung up (5.1). The combatants, Palamon and Arcite, entered holding lamps. Theseus sprinkled dust at their feet and then water on their heads. The dust was possibly a reference back to the mention of dust in “Fear No More” from the May ceremony at the start of 3.1.
Arcite went up alone onto the dais and prayed to Mars. When he asked for a sign, nothing seemed to happen. However, when Palamon invoked Venus, he seemed to be affected by some force and was convinced that he had received a sign, which was accurate in view of the ending of the play.
Emilia’s prayer to Diana was moving when she described herself as “guiltless of election”. We could feel her dilemma at being forced to decide who should live.
Scene 5.2 began at around l.70 as the Jailer’s Daughter was carried in and sat in a chair on the dais, an action described as her “curtsey”. She cried into her father’s coat when saying that he was to be hanged the next day.
Her dialogue was left intact, apart from her mention of going to bed, which made the ensuring ravishment non-consensual.
The Wooer pretended to be Palamon and caressed her. He nibbled on her ear, causing her to push him away saying “you would fain be nibbling”. She was given an injection in the arm to drug her.
With her last plaintive, moving words she pleaded with the Wooer not to hurt her “If you do, love, I’ll cry”. She tried to escape but was carried back screaming. She was forced into the chair, her skirt was lifted and she was ravished. The Jailer paid the Doctor in cash for his drug “cure”.
At the end of this sordid sequence the lights went out. The Jailer’s Daughter was left in the chair, apparently dead or otherwise incapacitated, on view for the rest of the performance.
Scene 5.3 began at l.41 with Emilia comparing the two contenders. She was left on her own with only a messenger to bring news of the contest.
The Messenger went to see how the combat was progressing, but there was no offstage noise to create the illusion of far off action. This reduced the tension of the sequence.
Theseus returned with the victorious Arcite and betrothed him to Emilia. Hippolyta’s tear and Emilia’s “Is this winning?” were very effective indicators that all was not well.
Instead of Palamon and his knights being brought to execution, the Jailer was made his fellow prisoner and both were bound and made ready to die by knife (5.4). The previous mentions in 4.1 of the pardon for the Jailer had been cut so that he now faced punishment for letting Palamon escape.
As both kneeled side by side, Palamon asked how the Jailer’s Daughter was and the Jailer blatantly lied saying she was “well restored and to be married shortly”. The Jailer was taken aside and executed.
Palamon was about to have same fate befall him, and the tension was intensified by the staging of the Jailer’s interpolated execution, when Hippolyta (not Pirithous) ran in with news of Palamon’s reprieve. She explained how Arcite was near death as a result of his horse falling backwards on top of him.
Arcite was carried in and laid on the ground. Emilia knelt over him and kissed him. Palamon also cried tenderly as Emilia closed Arcite’s eyes. Theseus commented on the fickle hand of fate and arranged Palamon’s marriage to Emilia. Arcite had admitted offstage that Palamon had seen Emilia first.
This was the better of the two bookends for its fluid staging and compelling reworking of some plot elements. The brutal spectacle of the ravished and abandoned Jailer’s Daughter was particularly memorable and because of its deliberate cruelty overshadowed the merely accidental death of Arcite.
The audience was perhaps meant to compare the silent ignominy of the one with the lavish attention paid to the other.