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 of early Renaissance fresco. 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)
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Time for the complications and confusions to develop – so back to Milan.
Firmly in Silvia’s aura, Valentine plays out a game of insult-jousting with Thurio, the not-a-cat-in-the-proverbial, father-favoured, ‘rich’ rival to Silvia’s hand. Casting an aging dandy in the role gave no doubt as to the result – having the rivals sit facing each other, with Silvia as arbitrator in between, and the assembled cupids and musicians applauding each of Valentines successful ‘passes’ beautifully emphasised the ritual nature of the exchange.
The Duke enters – a richer version of controlled adulthood – contrasting instantly with the similar aged Thurio and further pushing this loon’s chances into the shadows.
As fits the play, there is a continuation of word games resulting in a confirmation of Valentine’s friendship for Proteus swiftly followed by the Duke’s exit, and the friend’s entrance.
Love at first sight – only visible in the slightest of gestures, but no doubt: Proteus has fallen head over heals for Silvia. Silvia exits, summoned by her father and takes Thurio with her leaving Valentine and Proteus alone in the court of love. Yet another set piece exhibition - exposing the folly of love – twisted now by our knowledge of Proteus’s dissimilation and made piquant by Valentine’s delight in his returned friend.
And, as soon as his friend leaves the scene, Proteus delivers a soliloquy on the scientific principles of love, … excusing, as only adolescent justification’s can, his complete desertion of both the pure love for Julia and the platonic love for Valentine. All through The Two Gentlemen of Verona there are echoes of other plays – especially Romeo and Juliet (which is not surprising as they are said to share a common source) and this speech and reasoning is surely the ‘folk-wisdom’ used by Benvolio when he attempts to turn Romeo from one love to another by showing ‘a swan’ to his ‘crow’.
Proteus leaves to be followed by the two servants and the dog. Again, underplayed in the BBC production – and a trifle difficult to follow. What did become clear is the dog – an emblem of faith – and Launce are linked. Fidelity in ‘Fido’ here seems to be reversed though, the man is more faithful to the dog than vica-versa. This is a very indifferent hound. Off to the ale house with them (page boys drinking!).
Proteus passes through – still cogitating – and exposses the ploy he will use to gain Silvia. Valentine is plotting to fly Milan with Silvia to get married – and is having a silken rope made to gain access to her window. Proteus will expose his friend to gain favour of the Duke and get Valentine out of the scene.
A final visit to Verona where Julia, dog like, declares her love and devises a means to follow – dressed as a boy. There is a degree of rudeness and vulgarity in the talk with her maid which has been missing from the talk of the gallant males – although it was there in the servants. There is talk of pins and codpieces and Julia’s transformation from Virgin to page takes on more the status of emblem than theatrical device. Julia also blindly declares her faith in Proteus.
Which leads right into the central act of faithlessness.
Proteus follows through with his master stroke – he betrays Valentine to the Duke. And the strength of the production really shows at this point. The Duke is reason – he thinks and reacts with a determined calm. No matter how Proteus wraps up the betrayal, the Duke sees through – and there is guilt on Proteus’s face. But the Duke has to act, and will act.
Proteus leaves, Valentine enters – and in another of those easy to overplay scenes, exposes his own excess of zeal and deception: After all, he was about to ‘steal’ Silvia away. There was a gentle humour to the playing of this scene – a patient but forceful irony in an inevitable outcome. Valentine’s banishment is almost gently given – his comparison to the rash Phaeton, regretful.
Valentine, left alone, now has to deliver one of the more famous speeches of Shakespeare – and despite its fame, here it sounded just right. His lament at being banished, his loss of Silvia and the ensuing numbness of the world, all strike true.
In comes Proteus and his servant. In a strained joke, Launce makes to strike at Valentine who is now ‘nothing’ – it’s a piece of stage business that doesn’t work, and I suspect never did. There is an exchange where Valentine tells the already knowing Proteus of his banishment – attempts to ‘comfort’ him and promises that time will heal – and letters help. He leads him gently to the gate from the town.
Launce is left to find Speed – but does not move. He shows his brute understanding of his ‘betters’, and then moves on to a lament of his own – his love, a milkmaid, virtues in ‘black and white’ in the form of letter … he is soon joined by Speed in a catechism of the practical qualities needed in a wife.
Eventually Launce tells Speed he should have gone straight to his master – and the boy runs off to face a ‘swinged’ backside for being late – and Launce rushes after him to ‘delight’ in the swinging. Launce also makes it clear it is the ‘love letter’ which is the cause of the boys discomfort – and the observer’s pleasure: As clear a comment on the nature of this ‘Romance’ as any in the play.
At this point there is a serious degree of discomfort in both ‘Gentlemen of Verona’ – and an inevitable swinging coming their way – love is a strict mistress.
(To be completed)
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If there is any wisdom in the adage, ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind,’ the Duke has a chance of his daughter falling in love with Thurio – but there isn’t; especially when he enlists Proteus as a go-between.
This Duke seems to know more than most – there is a look in his eye as he claims Proteus as a ‘friend’, and his parting, “I will pardon you,” almost has an all seeing quality to it. It is also Antony’s, ‘ ..Now let it work’, and Oberon’s sending of Puck out to solve the lover’s problems: Here is both care and mischief combined.
Suddenly we are in the woods – and the design makes a leap – this is not an identifiable wood – the trees are tubes of something – almost a dream world. If the earlier scenes have been Wodehouse, now we are straight into Gilbert and Sullivan, complete with lovable bandits. Surely one has the look of Robin Hood - in Lincoln Green? Another, more robust, an escaped character from Pirates of Penzance? Smiles and flashing teeth in tasteful, and clean, dishevelment.
Valentine (with Speed) wanders in, is captured and instantly impresses enough to be made ‘King’. This is the material of fable and romance – Don Quixote should be here …
Back in Milan Proteus sets about wooing Silvia ‘on behalf of’ Thurio – musicians to serenade included. As they set about tuning their instruments, for these are real musicians and will play live, as they have throughout the production, in creeps the disguised Julia with the host from her inn – who has brought ‘him’ to find the gentleman ‘he’ asked after.
Proteus sings – ‘Who is Silvia?’. He is not a great singer, his voice cracks a little – which makes an honesty of Julia’s lines about not liking the musician. In most productions the song is sung by a beautiful voice – it is the sort of stand alone song which is easy to take out of context – the BBC refused to follow that path and consequently made it a revealing element.
Proteus gets rid of Thurio and the musicians, and engages Silvia in conversation – she on the balcony, he below. He tries to persuade her of his love, she reminds him of his former love – who comments throughout. Another set piece – beautifully controlled. In the end Silvia, to get rid of Proteus, agrees to send a picture of herself in the morning, and Julia, wakes the snoring Host, and departs heavy of heart.
Enter Sir Eglamour with the daybreak. I wondered where Don Quixote was, and Eglamour, if not the romantic knight himself, is the spitting image. It is a bombasting, deep voiced, rounded sound and movements performance. Silvia has entrusted him with a plan to help her escape the city and follow Valentine. They will meet at Friar Patrick’s cell, where she is to go for confession (!).
Launce fills in time with his ungrateful dog speech – lest we forget how topsy turvy the world has become: And in case you haven’t got the point, in walks Proteus employing ‘Sebastian’ (martyr killed by shooting full of arrows – in this case, cupid’s) the name Julia has taken on, to go to Silvia and deliver the very ring he exchanged with her on departing Verona, as a gift for Silvia and a sign of his ‘love’.
Proteus departs, Julia philosophises, Silvia enters.
Julia attempts to deliver the ring, Silvia, recognising it, rejects it – and you notice the make-up. Sebastian has darker skin than Julia, having thrown away his veil, and then goes on to use the multilayered ‘boy acting girl acting boy’ who acted ‘a girl being betrayed by a man’ image. It is delightful. The peel of sound released from that bell tower will resound through all of Shakespeare’s latter works – it’s there in ‘All the World’s a Stage’, it’s obviously there in ‘Twelfth Night’, but also in ‘Othello’.
And you are back into the play.
Julia and Silvia part, Eglamour enters, Silvia re-enters and they go off together to the forest. There is a build up of pace – but not enough to make things hasty … there is still time for another quick exchange on love.
Thurio is in conversation with Proteus about the success of his suit – Proteus gives evasive answers but Julia, now transformed fully into a page boy, comments in asides mirroring Speed earlier on in the play – and just as before, the Duke enters. He asks after Sir Eglamour and his daughter – Friar Laurence met them in the woods and (obviously having learnt his lesson) reported their flight to Silvia’s father.
The hunt is on … into the woods we all go.
The production added the fight, flight and capture of Silvia in fine swashbuckling detail – and she’s taken off to the ‘Captain’ of the brigands.
Valentine, sighing, lamenting, and ‘doing penance’ in the woods hears approaching voices and hides. Proteus, having rescued Silvia, and accompanied by Julia, attempts to persuade Silvia, then force his love on her. Valentine interrupts – and soundly ‘tells him off’.
When reading the play, this scene causes consternation; watching it, it doesn’t.
Valentine is a prefect who’s caught a naughty fifth former cheating at cricket – it’s a game. He’s more concerned with honour and friendship than any sexually driven love. This is the threatened assault of Demetrius in the woods – just gone slightly too far.
When Proteus ‘confesses’ it is genuine – when he repents, it is true. No audience has time to ‘go deep’ at this point – things are happening too quickly.
For Valentine now to give Silvia to his friend is almost an expression of faith in Christian forgiveness – and the production made it seem just that.
Julia’s fainting brings us all back down to earth (again).
Suddenly everything unravels – the mistake over the rings and the revelation of Julia in a shower of golden hair; Valentine, seeing his true love next to the mirage of Silvia, returns to the fold of faithful lover; the Duke, captive in the script – but not seeming so in this production, (with Thurio, who quickly disowns Silvia) bestows his daughter on the now worthy Valentine.
And off everyone goes, to an explanation and a wedding, or two.
There was a sense of great satisfaction at this point. The darkness had been but the shadows cast by a full glorious summer sun.
The BBC’s policy of shooting in great chunks – a full scene at a time, worked well; the casting, superb; the underplaying of both Launce and the Duke giving more a feel of wholeness and lightness than of slapstick; the design never letting go of the literacy and genre of the piece.
A final note on the music – essentially English composers of the period, live and weaving melancholy dance tunes throughout – a great success in television where the usual practice of ‘sound track’ adds a mechanical aspect to what should be ‘live’
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