Thirty-eight Shakespeare plays in a year; that was the aim. When I started my daily stab at online reviewing (362 reviews ago!) that seemed a simple enough secondary target but with lots of other stuff clamouring for attention it’s been pretty much touch and go; made it with a couple of days in hand. To be honest, I thought that if push came to shove, I could leave this last one out because it has always been a controversial part of the canon but that has proved unnecessary. I was also saving this until last because it was one of only a couple of Will’s works that I had never seen before.
The subject of all this dramatic tension is The Two Noble Kinsmen as performed at the Globe Theatre in a 2018 production helmed by Barrie Rutter. He brings his Northern Broadsides sensibility to proceedings and there is a broad range of accents on display not to mention some nifty clog dancing. It’s a very strange, let’s chuck everything in and see what sticks, kind of play; looking at Hamlet’s long list of theatrical genres as defined by Polonius, it probably comes under the heading of “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”.
Part medieval romance (Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale), part ancient Greek legend and part earthy contemporary comedy the problem for any production (not that there are that many of them) lies in attaining a balance between these elements as they make somewhat uneasy bedfellows. In truth this production probably goes more for comical than anything else although having no point of comparison it is rather difficult to say.
It’s not even entirely certain that Shakespeare had a hand in it, but as both the Globe and the RSC now list it and attribute it as a collaboration with John Fletcher, who am I to argue? This would make it the last of Shakespeare’s plays and therefore provide a pleasing sense of bookending his career as it is generally accepted that his first was Two Gentlemen Of Verona. The main thrust of the action in both is that two young men who are devoted to each other have their friendship ripped apart when they fall for the same woman. I think it would make an interesting production pairing to put the two plays on with doubling of the key roles.
So, in this iteration of the same idea, cousins Arcite and Palamon are captured in battle and from their prison instantly fall in love and then out of kinship when they spy Emilia. She is the sister of Hippolyta who is the partner of Duke Theseus – the couple featured in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The two men ultimately combat for the princess’ favours – one dies, the other doesn’t (no spoilers) though the plot does contain an unexpected last minute twist. In another strand the Jailer’s Daughter who helps Palamon escape from prison, falls madly in love with him, with an emphasis on the “madly” part of that description; cue much frantic dancing and dashing about the woods uttering nonsense.
The committed performance of Francesca Mills helps to make this element stand out, although the comedy angle is probably reduced by the modern sensibility that it isn’t really OK to be laughing at someone who is insane. Mills brings some true pathos to the role and throws herself energetically into the movement which uses various folk traditions such as Morris dancing in Ewan Wardrop’s choreography set to Eliza Carthy’s traditional folk score. The kinsmen themselves are handled by Bryan Dick and Paul Stocker who make a sound job of what they are doing but the rather one note dialogue they are given to perform tends to make them indistinguishable from each other and, sorry to say, just a tad boring. As the object of so much misplaced passion, Ellora Torchia has some heartfelt speeches which she delivers well. Jude Akuwudike and Moyo Akandé make a regal and stylish pairing as Theseus and Hippolyta. The rest of the ensemble company provide moments of pleasure with a notable turn from Jos Vantyler as an affected schoolmaster.
This is a lively production which uses song and dance to paper over some of the cracks. Would I have been sorry never to have seen the play? I wouldn’t quite go that far, as it provides an interesting counterpoint to some of the great works that preceded it, but it certainly does little to enhance Shakespeare’s overall reputation. In terms of ticking off the final checkbox on my Bardlist, it will do nicely.