Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

BBC Shakespeare


This was a production that played heavily on the courtly love aspects of the play.

Design was significant: It looked and sounded good – the music was taken from Elizabethan England and fitted nicely; the costumes, Italy - colours the pastels of an Italian Spring; the set could have come straight from the idealised towns hidden in the background of a Renaissance painting. Human cupids and lute plucking musicians decorated further this mindscape.

There was never any visual doubt as to the happiness. Any dragon presumptuous enough to appear would soon meet his St George – and function purely as a source of heroic confirmation.

The created environment became the perfect foil for this most ‘teenage’ of plays.

Because it is a play of Youth.

It is a very clever play – well constructed - and, if given a reasonably good production (as this one was), it entertains. It isn’t meant to go too deep, although it does raise some fundamental questions – very much like the first love of adolescence.

The early scenes give us the clear pattern – and signal the path we are to follow. Male friendship showing the slightest of cracks under the pressure of parting and one ’smitten’ the other not. It is a friendship found in the exchange of wit – puppy fighting with words. In this production humour is to the forefront, the costuming giving a sense of freedom and the two actors an easy familiarity.

They part – not over emotionally, but with regret – it is a masculine but not macho leave-taking.

In comes the ‘cheeky’ page – perhaps the weakest element as a result of an inexperienced actor having to deliver the greatest meaning. He brings news of a letter Proteus has sent to his loved-one – ambiguous news. There is a set piece word-exchange – over money. I have to admit, at this point my expectations were sinking.

Then the scene flips to the object of Proteus’s love, Julia, with her maid.

This is one of those scenes which irritates the hell out of me – because it is pure, concentrated, slap-her-face-for-her, teenage contrariness: And they got it spot on – I almost, had to leave the room. The design had us in a nice circular ‘tower’ and it really did give a feel of secret girly places (much like the toilet in a 50’s night club).

She discusses with the maid who she is to love, gets the letter from Proteus, throws it on the floor, sends the maid off with a flea in her ear, calls her back, starts to read the letter, rips it up, sends the maid off again … etc, etc, etc. Oh – and ends by going off to lunch with her father.

As I said, very irritating – and very true, if a little intense. Julia certainly caught the arrogance of a spoilt child, the maid, pert servant-hood.

Back down to earth – literally – as the father of Proteus discusses his son’s future … and decides to send him off to Milan to the court of the Emperor where he can gain a bit of polish and learn to be a true courtier, - oh, and be with Valentine, the friend he parted from at the start of the play. Again I’ll single out the costuming here – not loosing the theme of richness and elegance (much like Shakespeare’s language in the play) but tighter and ever so slightly darker: This is a more controlled adult world suddenly; the rich silks are the product of trade and commerce; of banking and mercantile calculation.

Proteus, meanwhile has received a letter from Julia and, when asked by his father the contents, drops into the sin of denial … foreshadowing the deeper ‘umbra’ he is to fall into as the play progresses. This is the stuff of musical comedy – it is the meat and drink of relationships which Wodehouse (a fan of Shakespeare) wove into his English Country House stories. There will be consequences – but never tragedy.

We shift to Milan – to the court, not of the Emperor, but of his daughter, Silvia. The designer here pulled out all the stops and we can be in no doubt that this is an earthly ‘paradise’. The motifs are there – musicians scattered tastefully and plucking; gold cupids complete with bow and arrow shooting at targets embossed with the word amour; statues of semi-naked women with lovely smooth, caressable, marble bottoms,

Centre stage is Valentine – clearly now victim to the virus he chided his friend for earlier. Speed, his page, rushes in with Silvia’s glove – another set-piece exchange enumerating and playing on the idea of love and its manifestation in the corpse of a once lusty youth.

Silvia herself quickly follows her gage – and another set-piece ensues – over a letter. Valentine has been asked to write a love letter for Silvia to deliver to one she loves: As courtly duty requires, he has done his lady’s bidding, if somewhat reluctantly. She hands it back because it was written with reluctance … and leaves him with the duty of writing another, more sincere, epistle.

All this time Speed, has been providing a commentary for the audience and then goes on to explain to Valentine, whom love has made stupid, that the person Silvia wants the letter for is Valentine – she’s playing a joke on him by making him write to himself.

There is a lot of talk here and, unless the audience is familiar with the language, a very big danger of incomprehension and boredom. I can only say I felt no such boredom – the actors managed to convey not only the meaning of the words, but the dynamic of the exchange; the sense of one person playing, gently, with another; of that other eased firmly into a commitment which had deeper roots than he could dream of; and then of a final release of light and energy as the awareness ‘dawned’ – maybe not a dawn so much as a torch bursting into flame at the start of a party.

Back in Verona, Proteus makes his leave of Julia. Time has obviously flown as the commitment between these two has moved on from exchanging letters to exchanging rings. Intentionally symbolic or not, the production had this take place on a flight of stairs – as if the descent from the ivory tower to the reality of earthly love had ironically started at this moment of ‘sweet sorrow’.

Enter Launce and his dog, Crab.

There is a danger, at this point, of the actor playing Launce (and the dog) stealing the show. In this production he didn’t – it was a beautifully measured performance underplaying and avoiding all potential pratfalls. What Launce says at this point could easily seem irrelevant, and with a full comedic performance, frequently is - here, you hear the words: He describes the leave taking of his family; the high emotions contrasting with the dog’s total insensitivity … it is one of those twinkles of Shakespeare’s genius – Proteus and Julia have just left in ‘sad sorrow’ – is it more like the dog than the family?

There was a quietness to their parting – did she seem more firm in her love than he in his? They parted with, ‘a holy kiss.’

(To be continued)


Craig said...

Yes, it starts well enough, doesn't it? And Garber (_Shakespeare After All_) presents Gents as the template for the great romantic comedies that would follow. I think Speed is pretty tiresome--belabored wordplay that's not really that funny--and the young actor in that BBC production never engaged with me, either. I don't know if anyone can "live" that character, but he didn't. I saw a live production recently, and Speed didn't do much for me there, either.

I'm not the only person who thinks Launce is the gem in this play, a real human drawn with warmth and humor (as opposed to Speed's _wit_). But Shakespeare probably kicked himself more than once for putting that dog onstage--it's practically an engraved invitation to ham it up and ad-lib!

Alan K.Farrar said...

I've more to say on Speed - but didn't want to post it in this walk through the production/story.
I also be the dog had nothing to do with Shakespeare -initially: But the use he makes of it is something else.