August 7, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Two Noble Kinsmen (Just Enough) @ The Dell, Stratford–upon–Avon

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Another landmark! A little over five years ago, I saw an excellent rehearsed reading of The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Swan. Since then, I’ve been waiting for a chance to see a full production. It’s the last of the plays in the universally-accepted thirty-eight that I’d not seen a "proper" version of, and now I’ve got the full set. Though of course the real achievement will be when someone decides that mounting a major Edward III is a good idea. I may still be waiting for a little while.

Just Enough, led by John East, took the production from Bath’s Ustinov Theatre to the Dell in Stratford, where it played to a large crowd drawn by the rare chance to see Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play. Happily, unlike last week’s Cardenio, the company didn’t have to compete with Holy Trinity’s bell-ringing and the actors were remarkably clear throughout. I maintain, though, that the Dell in its current shape is an inherently unkind space for theatre. Where the original Dell hollow (still there, and I don’t know why it’s not used) was a narrow space that contained its audience and allowed actors to focus their efforts, the flat wide area now used encourages audiences to spread out across a wide area and, even screaming at full volume, a great deal gets lost.

For this production, the deficiencies of the space became part of the play’s style. Delivered in a loud and highly rhetorical style, the company emphasised the play’s formality. Danny Shayler’s Theseus, in particular, stood out as emblematic of authority rather than a rounded individual, his pronouncements articulating his official public persona. While this worked well for the main plot, the company had to work much harder to present the subplot in a more natural voice. Phoebe Kemp, as the Jailer’s Daughter, presented the scenes of her growing madness from the front of the bare stage, telling us rather than embodying her condition. In this sense, her most effective moments were the quietest – in the middle of a series of "Hey nonny nonnies" she suddenly stopped and stood still, looking into the heavens for a noticably long patch. This simple moment was effective and heartbreaking, demonstrating her dissociation from reality far better than any number of childlike songs.

The only set for the production consisted of three step ladders, arranged for simple effects. Some of the images were striking – Zach Lipman and Matthew Harrison-James as Arcite and Palamon chained to the same simple structure, for example, and poking their heads between the rungs to gaze at Sorcha Finch-Murray’s Emilia; and the goddesses representing Venus letting petals fall on Palamon’s head. Most effective was the conversion of the ladders into a guillotine for Palamon, with the Jailer aiming to slam down another ladder as the blade. Branches of leaves stood for the grotto where Palamon hides, and flowers appeared throughout – firstly those presented by the Wooer to the Daughter, and later worn in the disturbed Daughter’s hair, in a clear nod to Ophelia.

The formal patterning and visual echoes offered a clear structure for the slight story to hang from. In the opening scene, the three queens emerged from the opposite end of the stage, veiled and in black, as the wedding procession of Theseus and Hippolyta approached, and delivered their laments in sober and deliberately archaic fashion. There was something even witch-like about them as they held hands and chanted together. The production kept three women onstage as a silent chorus for the majority of the action (though the specific actors rotated): holding up scenery, helping with costume changes or cheering on the battles.

The simple delivery of the text was broken up with a number of interesting physical sequences, some of which worked better than others. Emilia’s silent appearances as an object of contest or desire saw her swaying and posing in too obvious a way to be really effective, and the opening "battle" – presented in a choreographed series of foot-stamping, criss-crossing movements – went on far longer than it needed to and rendered the action somewhat unclear. However, other moments worked spectacularly, not least the final battle between Palamon and Arcite. Emilia stood downstage and delivered her lines as a servant ran in and out with reports. Behind her, the stepladders were piled into a pyramid structure, on either side of which the two kinsmen stood. They wrapped their chains (a recurring motif) around the top of the pyramid and began a tug of war in which they tried to pull the other onto the pyramid, clashing the metal with their chains. This was an incredibly effective sequence that powerfully conveyed the importance and impotence of this struggle, as the two strained hard while barely moving.

Lipman and Harrison-James were the production’s strengths as the kinsmen. The delivery favoured the eventual victor, Palamon, as the "hero", giving particular emphasis to Arcite’s "treachery. However, the two formed an interesting relationship, partly comic but always heartfelt, especially in their repeated embraces. Their arming scene saw the two of them daub each other with war paint, an intimate and touching gesture that marked the peculiarity of their conflict. Among the other performances, Callum Buckler stood out as a gentle and moving Wooer, who told the Doctor of his former place in the Daughter’s heart with a modest and defeated sadness. The production’s warmest moment came when he finally removed his fake mask to kiss her in his own person, before picking her up and carrying her offstage.

Music was used intelligently throughout. The Jailer’s Daughter had a trombone which, while making no literal sense, allowed her to adopt a range of interesting mannerisms – kissing it and dancing with it, using it as a telescope and providing a soundtrack to her own deflated expectations. Theseus played guitar, and accompanied himself during his final formal announcement prior to the duel, standing amid the audience. The company also sang a number of Renaissance songs to cover scene changes and underscore key action, lending the piece a simple but effective atmosphere.

East has a good eye for tableaux, and the final arrangement was strong – Arcite, after being thrown from his horse (presented by three women, and perhaps more comic than it intended to be) was laid on a red cloth and dragged to centre-stage. Palamon and Emilia kneeled either side of him while the rest of the court stood over. As the Epilogue detached herself from the tableau and came into the audience to deliver her lines, the rest of the cast smiled, presenting themselves in the manner of a reunited family portrait. Following this with a pleasant jig, the production made a strong case for the entertainment value of this neglected play. At only 90 minutes, and on such a small scale, it achieved plenty within its modest constraints and whetted the appetite for a larger-scale production in the future. One can only hope.

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