April 28, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (SATTF) @ The Tobacco Factory

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is the first Shakespearean comedy tackled at the Tobacco Factory’s annual season since a sophisticated, gentle Comedy of Errors two years ago. Director Andrew Hilton, approaching another early comedy, took a remarkably similar approach: Edwardians in Western Europe, influence from comedy of manners and a literate, polite approach to the play’s bawdy. Unlike The Comedy of Errors, however, Two Gentlemen poses problems that could not be so happily resolved.

Hilton’s production was defined from the start by a decorum that lent these Italian characters a very British distance throughout. Jack Bannell’s Valentine and Piers Wehner’s Proteus were chums rather than bosom companions, their close bond veiled by immaculate suits and an undemonstrative, hands-in-pockets demeanour of reserved privilege. While entirely appropriate to the class setting, the underplayed set-up left the moments of high emotion – such as Valentine’s banishment – jarring oddly, melodrama impinging on a rather more reserved tone.

This was only an issue so far as the play took itself seriously, and happily the earnestness was frequently punctured. Wehner in particular began the play as a rather damp, wistful Proteus with little vibrancy in his declarations of love. The relative reserve of his passion was made clear as, in parting from Julia, he turned his head at the last second to kiss her on the cheek rather than on the lips. It was left to Dorothea Myers-Bennet’s Julia to take the initiative and grab his face for a passionate farewell. Yet once embarked upon his infatuation with Lisa Kay’s Sylvia, Proteus became an Etonian Machiavel, smarming through meetings with the Duke and Turio and dismissing ‘Sebastian’ haughtily.

Valentine went through a similar transformation, though to opposite effect. As the initially hapless lover, Bannell’s comic timing was wonderful. As Sylvia returned his love letter (Kay suitably confusing in her mix of anger and shared smiles), Valentine stood with mouth open and hands apart. His frustration manifested as vacancy, he sitting stupefied at a cafe table while Marc Geoffrey‘s joyful Speed slowly spelled out the jest to him. Similarly, in the strongest set piece, Peter Clifford as the Duke forced an increasingly uncomfortable Valentine to divulge his plot to abduct Sylvia. Bannell perfectly captured the incremental surrenders as Valentine was backed into a corner, until finally the Duke revealed the rope ladder hiding under his cloak, leaving Valentine bereft, and literally stuck at the end of the rope that the Duke now held. The abashed and exposed Valentine stood exposed, but then was pulled threatening towards the Duke, the ladder already forming a noose about his neck.

Yet in the presence of the colourful outlaws (including a female leader who was rather taken with their new captive), Valentine entered a heroic register which changed the tone for the final act. Appearing with broadsword on back and hanging from a pillar as if Robin Hood, Bannell veered rather too far into swashbuckling mode, relishing the control of the climax and veering from threatening avenger to swooning lover to an extent that risked self-parody as he leaped to the floor and brandished his weapon at his noble captives. While the character had a clear arc, the groundedness of the earlier acts left the forest scenes feeling oddly fantastical.

It was in the clowns that the play was most firmly earthed. While not all of the scenes were amusing (the recitation of Launce’s prospective wife’s vices and virtues was quite tedious), Geoffrey and Christopher Donnelly as Launce offered affable West Country valets. Speed was efficient in folk dress, Launce more of a tramp, but both companionable. These scenes stand or fall by the quality of their dog, and Lollio (a black lab, I’d like to say, although I’m no expert on breeds) was adorable, if rather too impeccably well-behaved, lying down obediently as soon as he was onstage. The wistful face of the dog, however, was priceless as Proteus ordered him offstage. Launce enjoyed his setpieces, though disappointingly the banter with the audience was kept to a minimum, despite the intimacy that the Tobacco Factory space affords.

The intrusion of another cast member’s dog during the curtain call (somehow accidentally released from a dressing room and causing hysterics among the cast) rather demonstrated the raucous energy that emerges when a genuinely ill-behaved animal gets onto a stage, and in some ways this characterised a production that restrained itself too much. Launce’s thrusting motions during his description of his love’s virtues were the only gesture towards the bawdy of the play, and hinted at the energy that could have been injected elsewhere. A beautifully choreographed scene change with dancing waiters setting up tables was a stunning interlude, but again pointed up the contrast to elsewhere, although the live music throughout fitted well.¬†Visual humour was found in Alan Coveney’s late appearance as Eglamour, stripped down to his long johns by the outlaws, and Paul Currier’s entertainingly foppish Turio, flailing about with a whiskey decanter held in delicate white gloves.

The production’s hidden weapons were its women. Kay was a capable and forthright Sylvia, standing firm before Proteus while on her balcony and blunt to her father. Sylvia’s own slightly haughty reserve was offset by her light laughter in Valentine’s presence, particularly as Turio was bested in verbal banter. Myers-Bennett, meanwhile, was often heartbreaking as an emotionally volatile Julia. The early scene of the paper ripping was played as a dance of bluff and double-bluff with the game Lucetta (Nicky Goldie), both trying to catch each other reading the torn pieces of writing. The subtlety and attention to this perfectly captured the production at its strongest, integrating a polite comedy of manners into the parodic high emotional register of the romance narrative. Julia went back and forth in all her decisions, both excited and terrified as choosing to dress as a boy. Once in disguise, she was prone to weeping, often hanging back in a far corner of the in-the-round stage to show her reactions to Proteus’s infidelity. The moment of the two women meeting (Julia in disguise) and bonding over Proteus’s treatment of the ‘absent’ Julia saw an exchange of genuine sympathy that gave the play an emotional anchor.

It was perhaps a shame, then, that the ending copped out entirely, with an extensive rewrite preventing the company from having to deal with the issues of a historical text that have allowed the play to be so usefully problematised in other productions. Following the attempted rape and Valentine’s ‘gift’ of a stunned Sylvia to the (genuinely) penitent Proteus, Julia swooned comically. Thereafter, several speeches of new dialogue were introduced. Upon the Duke’s arrival, Valentine and the Duke traded bargains about Sylvia’s fate, to which Sylvia offered sassy asides mocking the men for passing her back and forth. Then, Valentine demanded that he would take Sylvia only if she chose him. She came forth, kept him hanging for a moment and then extended her hand, to his comical cries of gratification. While it is easy to understand the modern impulse to return agency to Sylvia, it is a rewrite that deliberately sidesteps having to deal with the strength of the male-male bond, the significant ambiguity of Sylvia’s silence in the play or the question of her status as property. The new interpolations jarred tonally, sounding like the anachronistic interpolations that they were, and this new ending felt rushed and artificially neat in a way that Shakespeare’s comedies deliberately resist.

With all of the above said, the final image was quite lovely – the two men held out their arms to their fianc√©es, who looked at one another and took each other’s arms instead, marching out with heads held high, to the amused exasperation of Valentine and Proteus. To end with this without any of the unnecessary rewriting would, I suggest, have been a far more potent ‘silencing’ of the rather self-indulgent men. Yet this production still successfully demonstrated the foolishness of self-absorbed, young lovers, prioritising its female characters through their emotional maturity and shared community. While it needed more of an edge and a bit more pep to give a sense of the stakes, this Two Gentlemen aimed, and largely succeeded, to delight.

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