Two Noble Kinsmen

July 1, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

The Two Noble Kinsmen @ Shakespeare’s Globe

Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides were one of the first companies to perform in the incipient Shakespeare’s Globe, and in many ways that company’s ensemble ethos, physicality and love of music make them ideal inhabitants of the outdoor amphitheatre. In his first production since retiring from Broadsides, Rutter showed no sign of leaving behind that company’s ethos, bringing a hearty, stompy Two Noble Kinsmen to the Globe.

This really was a Broadsides production in all but name, with the vast majority of accents representing the North East, a folk score (composed by Eliza Carthy, in what her bio suggests may be one of the first theatrical excursions for the acclaimed artist), plenty of clog and Morris dancing, and even the return of the ‘Rutter Writes’ programme note. At two hours fifteen, it privileged pace and gusto, rattling through a relatively little-performed play with confidence.

At its most ebullient, the production sang. The Morris was a particular highlight, presided over by Jos Vantyler’s Schoolmaster, who, tutted over his charges’ disorganisation before throwing off his robe to reveal a leaf-covered one-piece and bursting into a rattling clog dance. The Morris was frenetic and lengthy, including daring group spins and a breathtaking sequence in which Matt Henry’s tall Pirithous threw the Jailer’s Daughter – Francesca Mills, a little person – up into the air.  As the climax to the first half, the whirlwind of energy and activity captured a sense of how this sequence works as a set piece of skill and celebration. Yet it also served story – The Jailer’s Daughter led the dance throughout, but it was the Schoolmaster who took the bows, completely concealing the madwoman. As the company made their way off upstage with their reward, the Daughter was left behind; one dancer turned back to her, but only to strip her of her costume and run after her friends. As the doors shut in the Daughter’s face, she blundered off in another direction, a beautifully sober indictment of the community who had just co-opted her talent in an empty show of collectivity.

The Jailer’s Daughter subplot was a strong strand throughout. Given how much of it is sustained by monologues, Mills poured heart and soul into it. Unabashedly horny, she rubbed her legs in glee as she gazed on Palamon, before dismissing Jon Trenchard’s Wooer with a withering ‘The difference of man and man!’ The self-aware sexual energy of her early scenes became increasingly frantic as she began losing her faith in Palamon, and she delivered her soliloquies in a rush, as if trying to resolve her uncertainty with pure action. The shift back to the prison in the second half led to a lovely sea shanty as the prison’s men indulged her; but the conclusion was the best of all, as the Wooer and Daughter stepped incrementally towards one another, making their pledges. The Daughter’s ‘And you’ll not hurt me?’ was heartbreaking, and as the two walked off hand in hand, their reunion felt earned.

The dynamics of the lower ranks were finely realised in the combination of avarice, family, community and honest expression of love; the dynamics of the ruling classes less so. Given the quite shocking patriarchal politics of Two Noble Kinsmen, I find readings that treat Theseus as more or less benign quite difficult to reconcile; Jude Akuwudike was dignified and loving, authoritative and attentive, and while Emilia (Ellora Torchia) expressed shock at his instruction that she decide which of the Kinsmen should live or die, the production showed no interest in exploring this as a problem. The relationship between Theseus and Moyo Akandé’s Hippolyta was cordial and mutual, even idyllic, aligning them much more with the pastoral holidaying of the Morris than with more serious concerns.

That the ruling party were entirely played by actors of colour, and their prisoners and subjects primarily by white actors, may have been deliberate, but in the absence of any more specific politicisation of the court, I couldn’t discern a purpose beyond the perhaps unintentional risk of rendering the production’s women of colour passive objects of the male gaze, most obviously as Hippolyta and Emilia wandered along the stage while Palamon and Arcite ogled them. The production’s treatment of the play’s queerness was also disappointingly comedic – Theseus and Pirithous indulged in a small play fight for the sake of an awkward comic beat as they caught one another’s eyes and dusted themselves down in embarrassment. This moment aside, the production seemed sincerely invested in the narratives of manliness that underpinned the characters’ self-presentation.

Bryan Dick and Paul Stocker as, respectively, Arcite and Palamon, were effectively twins in different coloured shirts. They were introduced working through training exercises, battering the hell out of two poor servants in protective gear. Their posturing at least got some pleasingly comic undermining, first as they were delivered to Theseus piled onto a small cart, and then as they reappeared in prison chained to a larger cart. The sudden change from their over-the-top protestations of eternal love to their unending enmity was played for laughs in the contrast, and in an inspired bit of physical comedy they strained at 45 degree angles from their chains, glaring in each others’ faces but unable to touch. Palamon got an extra set of comic scenes as he shook his chains to the Jailer’s (Andy Cryer) bemusement, before skilfully avoiding having his head taken off as the cart was wheeled back into the tiring house.

The early undermining of the kinsmen was disappointingly replaced with sincerity in the second half. While the scene of the two arming each other was moving in its restraint, their duel was brief and underwhelming, their prayers straightforward, and their final battle staged as a display of masculinity in the gallery, moving in bursts as they wrestled through iconic poses. Having questioned the early value of their posing, now the production fully invested in it, leaving me feeling rather unsure where the production thought it was pitching its commentary. The production went through the story beats efficiently enough, but without an especially striking sense of what was at stake.

That isn’t to undermine the quality of the performances. Torchia in particular did some great work as Emilia, capturing some of her trapped desperation even if the rest of the production didn’t show an interest in her plight. And Akandé was mesmerising as a quietly threatening Hippolyta, threading arrows while Emilia gathered flowers, who watched her husband’s actions with a careful eye; I’d have loved to see her have more to do.

But ultimately, and as so often with Broadsides’ work, the best material came when the company had fun with the text. The three queens in particular were a joy, entering first with ululations to interrupt Theseus’ celebrations, wearing Daenerys Targaryen braids and refusing to be budged as they coopted Emilia and Hippolyta to their cause. After the battle was won, the coffins of their husbands were carted across the stage, and the band staged a full jazz funeral – first sombre, plodding as the Queens twirled umbrellas, and then suddenly exploding into an uptempo song of joy. At moments such as this – and in the closing ‘Goodbye friends’ number, a beautiful all-company singalong – the production soared.

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