Let us be frank from the outset: The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not a good play. It is an apprentice work with some occasional flashes of what is to come, but if it had survived without Shakespeare’s name on it, the likelihood of its revival would be doubtful.
The problem is largely in the plotting; the language is fine enough, with some memorable lyrical moments and decent comic moments, but not only has Shakespeare not yet learnt to hide the joins; at times he stops even trying to, throwing up his hands and placing two pieces next to each other with a Post-It note saying ‘These fit together’ lying in between. Attempting to write a romantic comedy, he only knows the mechanisms of farce, and the play falls between these two. One has only to compare this, probably his first play, to what is in many ways a rewriting of it, The Two Noble Kinsmen, his last (and co-authored) text for the theatre, to grasp the difference.
So it takes a certain amount of guts to put on this play, and while it could be argued that in altering the ending to render it more palatable to a modern audience, the young members of Shakespeare in the Ruff choose an easy way out, the daring remains.
You recall that ending: Proteus, having betrayed his friend Valentine and reduced him to leading a group of rather well-bred outlaws, attempts to rape Silvia in the forest and is only prevented by Valentine’s well-timed arrival. Upon which Proteus offers a half-hearted apology, Valentine accepts, and straightaway offers Silvia up to the cad. Silvia says nothing for the rest of the play. And though things are patched up with the recognition of Proteus’s first love Julia and the return of his affections to her, so that the lovers are properly paired, this has long been recognised as an unfortunate sort of ending, leading to the comment that by the end one can only conclude that there are no gentlemen in Verona. Using only lines of Shakespeare culled from other plays and from the sonnets, Shakespeare in the Ruff manages a pastiche ending that offers a much more sensible, credible, and acceptable conclusion; and whatever one’s views of the rectitude of doing so, one has to admit it works. Despite the occasional change of meaning from their original context (Desdemona’s question about whether women deceive men is a naïve question about the existence of female adultery, as opposed to wondering whether any women act as badly as Proteus has), the shift does not jar, and provides a much more satisfactory closing. The programme offers the audience the challenge of working out exactly where the rewriting begins, and it is well-done enough that I confess I failed to until I started recognising lines from plays I’m more familiar with.
Despite the ruffs festooning the necks of the volunteers manning the till and the programmes, the setting is updated to Western Canada, more or less in 1880, as the Canadian Pacific Railway approaches completion. Milan becomes a town newly accessible by the railroad, ruled over by a middle-aged Duchess with a Kate Middleton fascinator. I had never before considered how well Shakespeare’s plays might be adapted to the time when the West was being opened up, particularly in a play requiring rigid social structures and gangs of outlaws – though a play like Romeo and Juliet might be better suited to the American West than the Canadian, with its potential for gun slinging gangs and an ineffectual sheriff. Here there are no guns, and the only Americanism is the drawling, fatuous Southern Thurio in his white vest and black cowboy hat.
With a staging areas framed by two large trees, in the background of which the occasional tableau is seen, and a set consisting almost entirely of two travelling trunks, this outdoor production depends to a huge extent on its actors, who work double-time to save the play from itself. It is always good to be reminded of how excellent actors are able to present a riveting show despite the inadequacy of what they must work with, just as the best script in the world won’t save a poor production, and the actors here are very good. Proceeding at a rapid clip freeing the audience after just over 90 minutes, as it begins to get dark, they make the text and its meaning very clear, without over-explaining the jokes with the physical action. One occasionally loses a few words as a plane goes by or when an actor faces away from us, but that is one of the prices of outdoor performances.
There are two ways of doing Two Gentlemen: as straight-up farce, verging on parody, and as a more serious, romantic comedy. Shakespeare in the Ruff chooses the second, more challenging option.
As Silvia and Lucetta, Kaitlyn Riordan is very good, growing into the larger role as the play goes on. If not completely convincing as Silvia in love, she is much better in her outrage at Proteus, and her final consoling of Julia is moving. Jesse Griffiths makes the most of the not-particularly-varied role of Valentine, looking appropriately confused when he suddenly finds himself acclaimed leader of a gang of poncho-clad outlaws. His utter lack of understanding as Speed explains Silvia’s scheme with the letter is also quite priceless. His most serious moments are also well-played, his greater maturity clear in his interactions with Proteus.
As the Duchess, Trudy Weiss is marvelous, with a deliciously snide edge to her voice as she rounds on Valentine and banishes him. The choice of changing the Duke’s gender does cause some issues, however, particularly in the scene when she tricks Valentine into revealing the details of his plot to carry Silvia off. It is a very well-played scene, with Valentine oblivious until the question about his cloak suddenly makes him nervous and the Duchess toying with him; but having this middle-aged lady asking for advice on how to seduce a young woman is ludicrous, despite the rather clumsy attempt to patch it up by having her ask, supposedly, on Thurio’s behalf. That Weiss manages (mostly) to pull it off is a great credit to her.
Adrian Morningstar’s Proteus manages to suggest a depth to the character that the text ill affords, and does his utmost with the unbelievable shifts in the young cad’s affections. He is at his best at a high pitch in his wooing, and is particularly good in the final scene, where his Proteus’s essential immaturity is clearest. What’s missing is a sense of the sneakiness inherent in his actions; Proteus is mostly played ‘straight’, and though his duplicity is evident in what he does, it is not in his manner. This of course makes his ability to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes more believable, but it also obscures his nastiness, his maliciousness.
Julia can be a thankless role, and Lesley Robertson does as much with it as one can hope. Her giddiness in the letter-tearing scene is charming, and deservedly appreciated by the audience, and while one never quite feels the depth of her torment as she witnesses Proteus’s betrayal, she is nevertheless moving in her disguise. With the altered ending, Julia is probably the character who suffers most from the play’s inadequacy in plot-weaving, and Robertson surmounts this well.
The two clowns provide most of the cheap laughs in the play and have most to deal with the alterations in humour over the centuries. Andrew Joseph Richardson, as Launce and Sir Eglamour, is to be commended especially for the speed at which he shifts costumes and modes between his roles, to which he adds one as the head outlaw, sometimes with only six lines to do it in. However, though Richardson is very good at getting the sense of the jokes across, he is hobbled by the fact that however well-explained, a great number of them are still not particularly funny for a modern audience. Even more detrimental is the problem that faces every Launce: the fact that they are, by necessity, upstaged by the dog. There are five separate canines involved in this production. On the night I saw it this was KD, a large and well-behaved golden doodle who sat when told and spent most of his time nuzzling the actors in a search for treats and wagging his tail at apposite moments. In fact, KD was so well-behaved it was hard to believe any of Launce’s tattling on him.
David Patrick Flemming, meanwhile, spent most of his time stealing the show even from the dog, whether running headfirst into a low-hanging branch and sprawling down the hill as Speed, rasping and grouching as Don Antonio with his torso almost at 90 degrees to his legs, or drawling and ad-libbing his way across the stage as Sir Thurio. He was absolutely superb, his side comments as Thurio being particularly well-received. Leaving after the serenade to Silvia, in which he had joined in on the cowbell, he commented that ‘That bell don’t sound good at all’; having determined to abandon his pursuit of Julia, he mentioned that ‘I do appreciate that you don’t want me around, but it’s awful dark out there’ before leaving anyway under the heavy stares of Valentine and the Duchess. Flemming is an extremely funny actor and one who clearly has a stellar career before him.
There are still certain issues with the production, however. I have mentioned the problems caused by the re-gendering of the Duke. I am also not certain that it was entirely necessary to engage the audience in a team-building vocal exercise before the beginning of the play. Most questionable was the choice to replace the text of the serenade to Silvia. ‘Oh Silvia, there ain’t nobody like you’ may indeed be a great country song (not being an aficionado thereof I am in no position to comment on its worth) for guitar, harmonica and cowbell, but ‘Who is Silvia? What is she / That all our swains commend her’ it ain’t.
Still, these are minor quibbles in the main, and the show is well-worth seeing. Brendan McMurtry-Howlett’s direction is subtle and never showy, never detracting from the plot. And when Proteus yells at the departing others and Julia turns to him and assigns him one of the penances from Love’s Labour’s Lost, one finally sees a deserved if merciful fate laid upon him, and it is gratifying to realise that Shakespeare has provided it. And for Silvia to have the right to speech at the end, and console Julia by speaking the sonnet ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments’, gives at last a satisfactory feeling to the audience, leaving them moved rather than utterly shocked and confused. It is unfortunate that in the interests of gender equality the verse of the last line of the sonnet is mangled to add the words ‘or woman’; but the feeling is not lost.