Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 30 June 2018
Though at one point the authorship was unclear, we’re now quite certain of Shakespeare’s collaboration with John Fletcher to create this final play. Exactly how much each playwright contributed isn’t cut and dried though – this sort of thing was probably quite common during Shakespeare’s time, but we’re no closer to working out how they went about it. For a variety of reasons, The Two Noble Kinsmen went unperformed for a significant number of years and it is still a rarely played piece to this day. Following on from his production of The Captive Queen in the winter season, Barrie Rutter returns to direct this new production for the Globe’s summer programme.
Based on Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale (which itself was inspired by classical tales), The Two Noble Kinsmen are Arcite and Palamon: nephews to a defeated king who are taken prisoner by his vanquisher, Theseus. They vow to one another that they will make the best of the situation, as they will always be happy in each other’s company – that is, until they both spot Theseus’ sister-in-law Emilia through their cell window and instantly fall in love with her. Camaraderie turns to rivalry as they try to win her affection (and their own freedom). The jailer’s daughter has also fallen in love at first sight, but with Palamon – so it’s doomed to go unrequited, taking a hefty toll on her sanity.
This is another of those plays that’s very hard to put into one particular box; whilst it has some great comic moments (and, indeed, ends in the traditional manner for a comedy), there is a dark side and an element of tragedy running through it. It’s also rather of its time in terms of the gender politics, with Emilia being ruled by her brother-in-law, as well as the feelings of Arcite and Palamon, rather than her opinion counting for anything (though she is faced with something of a Sophie’s Choice scenario at one point). I wonder if it might be more interesting to invert gender in a future production, so as to explore this a little better? Something to consider if this play gains a bit of popularity, rather than being a note on this one in particular.
I do wonder if it could do with a bit of abridging. Being unfamiliar with the play, I don’t know if it has also been subject to some editing, but it could definitely do with a little trimming down. Some scenes are so incredibly dry that it’s actually a little difficult to follow some of what’s going on – particularly early on, which doesn’t set things up in the most ideal way. Thankfully, whenever the Noble Kinsmen are onstage you can be sure of a riveting (and generally entertaining) time.
After the blank stage of the Globe Ensemble’s shows (Hamlet and As You Like It) it’s nice to see a bit of a set creeping in. Eliza Carthy’s compositions and Jessica Worrell’s designs place this production firmly in a “Merrie England”, though with the hint of modernity in the costumes. Focusing like this makes a play that’s occasionally a challenge to follow a bit more accessible – and also means they can really go to town on the morris dancing sections. Choreographed by Ewan Wardrop (most recently seen at the Globe onstage in the previous two summer seasons), they inject some life into the play and are a real breath of fresh air. Rather than following previous versions of the play and being another example of how women are oppressed, these routines are more like celebrations of the style, including a range of different performers. The closing jig is also well worth the wait!
Making his Shakespeare debut, Olivier Award-winning Matt Henry takes on the role of Pirithous; as one of Theseus’ Athenian generals, he doesn’t have a lot to do, though Henry comes into his own when the morris dancers invite Theseus and his group to join in with them – and his distinctive vocals shine through as the company bids farewell with a song at the end. Francesca Mills mostly plays the Jailer’s Daughter for laughs, with a performance full of vigour and vitality that keeps the play running on full steam. This part could also be played in a more serious, dramatic manner, but Mills is able to build pathos more subtly and in keeping with the tone of the rest of the production.
Ellora Torchia (fresh from starring as Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well) puts in an emotional and tormented performance as the beloved Emilia; you truly believe she would rather do anything than choose between these two worthy, but unknown, men. Paul Stocker and Bryan Dick make a fantastic double act as Palamon and Arcite – they bounce off one another as best friends swearing their allegiance to each other, before turning banter to barbs as it becomes every man for himself. “All’s fair in love and war”, as the saying goes, and they definitely go full pelt with larger than life performances.
The Two Noble Kinsmen runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 30 June 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.