December 13, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe (Two Gents Productions) @ North Wall Oxford

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Two Gents Productions are a three-man company made up of performers Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu, and director Arne Pohlmeier. As their name suggests, the company was founded as a result of the trio’s work on their devised production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, retitled Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe. While the company have since begun producing other work, 2009 saw their profile enormously raised with an extensive UK and international tour of their debut production, which played to full and enthusiastic houses around the world.

In "township" style, this two-man show was disarmingly informal. Forgotten lines or scenes that the actors claimed to be bored with were jettisoned, the action was frequently paused in order to check that the audience were keeping up (with an implied rebuke to the mother behind me who kept up a running commentary throughout for her two children), and at one point Chikura asked the lighting technician to fetch him a Coke.

This informality of approach was apparent from the start, as the actors strolled out on stage as themselves bearing a large trunk, welcomed the audience and introduced the play. In the intimate but still formally arranged surroundings of the North Wall, the audience at first struggled to interpret how to respond: an opening round of applause was greeted with a bemused bow by the performers, and the audience laughed politely at the jokes while shying away from the moments of suggest interaction. It was testament to the skill of the performers at handling their medium that the barriers between performers and audience were quickly broken down, however, to the extent that the actors occasionally had to good-humouredly tell audience members not to improvise their own lines.

A Prologue riffing on Romeo and Juliet established that "In fair Zimbabwe we lay our scene", although the production may more properly have been said to be set everywhere and nowhere. From a trunk, the performers pulled out a range of props and pieces of costume which were hung on a washing line at the back of the stage. While African culture, such as the use of a sanza for musical accompaniment, was visible throughout, any sense of a "real" location was suggestive only; the transparency of the storytelling techniques employed ensured that the co-existing realities of performers and characters were in continual dialogue with one another. We were to invest in Chikura and Munyevu, rather than Valentine or Proteus.

The production depended on a variety of items and objects to enable the multiple transformations of place and character which the two actors underwent. Thus, the underside of the trunk was slammed in order to formally end scenes, and single items of costume represented characters: braces for Valentine, an upturned collar for Proteus, a ripped arm-length glove for Silvia, a sarong for Julia, and so on. These items were donned with some ceremony, with Julia’s self-indulgent sigh of pleasure in her appearance as the sarong was donned becoming something of a running joke. The ability of the actors to transform themselves was incredibly effective in its simplicity: as Munyevu became Sylvia, his voice rose a register and became softer; a benevolent smile flickered upon his face; and his focus softened, giving the character a dreamy aura. As Proteus, his shoulders hunched, his stance and voice hardened and his eyes looked piercingly at Valentine. While we were always aware first and foremost of the actors as themselves, the subtleties of expression and gait allowed the characters to be effectively differentiated, the audience following the shifts even when characters passed from one actor to another: thus, as Munyevu removed Silvia’s glove and passed it to Chikura, so too were Sylvia’s distinctive mannerisms and tics adapted by Chikura, the audience following the character along with the physical indicator of their presence. This was used to great comic effect in Julia’s disguise as Sebastian, with multiple items of costume layered on each other; and even more complicatedly as Speed explained Silvia’s letter-writing conceit to a befuddled Valentine. Realising that neither Valentine nor the audience had any idea what he was talking about, Speed "stopped" the play, and proceeded to re-perform Valentine and Silvia himself, while reminding the audience "I’m still Speed, by the way", explaining the action through a series of performances concealed within his own performance.

The objects that represented characters came to bear remarkable resonance in their own right. At times when more than two characters were required, the actors would often give props to members of the audience, casting them in that role and then directing the action towards them, most entertainingly at one point when the swaggering Turio’s jacket was gifted to one gentlemen who was then subjected to an energetic tirade from Valentine. The objects gradually began to take on a life that existed independently of their animation; thus, in one fight scene, the fight was conducted as a comic beating up of a piece of clothing, while the other actor responded remotely to the pain at the other side of the stage. More interestingly, in the final act, Silvia and Juila were often no more than their empty objects, lying on stage as Valentine and Proteus fought over them. The objectification of the women in their discourse was thus literally figured on the stage, the women becoming wordless prizes unable to defend or speak for themselves.

The comedy of the production often came from unexpected places. Lance and Crab, here even more irrelevant to the main plot than usual, were relatively static, Chikura’s Lance simply holding a leash and collar attached to Munyevu, who stood with arms folded and tongue panting. Lance responded to being shown up by tightening the leash gradually until Crab’s eyes bulged. In their subsequent scene, Crab sat moodily at the edge of the stage, staring fixedly into the distance with chin on fist. Lance’s speeches were themselves spoken straight, though with audience members asked to provide the shoes representing his parents. The comedy here came more from the subversion of expectations of farce, with the moody Crab surprisingly captivating in his human sulk. Elsewhere, the comedy was more obvious; Julia and Lucetta’s scene took place in an imagined bathroom, with both actors miming the concealment of Julia’s modesty, and Lucetta herself was made up of comically exaggerated mannerisms and affectations that spoke of the servant’s irreverent attitude towards her mistress.

In a nice touch, Julia’s overhearing of Proteus’s wooing of Silvia was recast as a visit to a witch doctor, who "conjured" an image of Proteus. The two actors then leaped onto a platform to perform as Turio and Proteus, before jumping back to ground level to speak as Julia and the witch doctor. Chikura’s comic songs as both Valentine and Turio, consisting usually of the words "Silvia, Silvia, Silvia" sung repeatedly or of pastiches of more recent songs (notably Valentine’s lamenting rendition of "Lonely, I am so lonely"), were highlights, and countered nicely by the tuneful melodies of Proteus. Most of the comedy came from the actors as themselves, whether Chikura forgetting his lines as the Duke on the news of Valentine’s love for Silvia and instead improvising deliberately mundane dialogue ("Oh no. I am shocked"), or the apology for use of the word "codpiece" in front of the young children in the third row and Chikura’s explanation that "It’s a fish". Most impressive was a bravura piece of physical comedy in the depiction of the banditti, in which three members of the audience were dragged on stage and treated as human puppets, the actors waving their victims’ arms around in increasingly expressive movements to match their ventriloquised dialogue, while the puppets themselves creased up with laughter.

All this comedy served to underscore a rather more serious undertone. Proteus and Valentine were barely friendly even in their opening scene, displaying clear resentment of each other’s choices; already, these were friends who had grown apart. Valentine’s welcome of Proteus to court was cold and stand-offish, while Proteus’s arrogant demeanour suggested open animosity. As Proteus worked his plans against Valentine, he took increasing glee in their success. In the forest, however, all pretences were dropped. His attempted rape of Silvia was exactly that. Munyevu threw Chikura’s Silvia to the ground and advanced threatening on her as she cowered, slowly but deliberately forcing her legs apart and lowering himself. At this point, and with no laughter, Chikura removed the glove, left it at Munyevu’s feet and made his way to the other side of the stage to ‘appear’ as Valentine, interrupting the rape. Valentine’s anger at Proteus was manifest, and their reaffirmation of friendship was anything but; the offer of Silvia was made with deep sarcasm and loathing, a furious and scathing damnation of Proteus’s actions; and Proteus’s acceptance of Julia shortly thereafter was a shamefaced step-down on Proteus’s part, the only way out of the predicament into which he had put himself.

Throughout this, the women lay on the floor as objects; yet after the Duke’s closing words, the play had its final trick to play. The actors resumed the sarong and glove of Julia and Silvia, and the latter was discovered, weeping and bruised on the floor. Julia moved to her, took her head in her lap and began comforting her, the lights (which had been set to a single state throughout) fading on their embrace of solidarity. The sobriety and theatricality of this final moment, in contrast to the transparency and good humour elsewhere in the production, ended the play on a deadening note of condemnation of both Valentine and Proteus, human kindness forgotten in their selfish and myopic actions. It was perhaps not the comic conclusion we might have expected, but one which fitted the community-rooted motivations behind this production. Laughter gave way to a severe reading of the play that was all the more effective for the irreverence and mockery of what had come before. An entertaining and expertly-performed production, that achieved more with a shoe-string budget than most established companies.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review