Mrs Chrisparkle and I love our Shakespeare. He’s big and strong enough to accommodate all modernisations, and it’s rare that an updated version misses the mark completely. And, for the purists, you can always go back to the Original. I think he’s at his worst when his plays are updated a bit, when the director only goes half-hog and not the whole one. Matthew Dunster and RashDash’s modernised version of Two Gentlemen of Verona is certainly a full-on brightly realised production and I applaud it for that.
The stark boxy set lends itself well to representing the different locations. Silvia’s boudoir, a seedy nightclub, Antonio’s guitar emporium, Julia’s clothes shop and the Milanese Fashion House all entertainingly come to life. The lighting, too, is pretty darn fantastic – strong colours and clearly lit acting spaces, not to mention a vivid strobe sequence. The costumes are excellent – full of glitter and pizzazz in Milan, contrasting nicely with Proteus and Valentine’s Veronese plain H&M look. I also admired the great attention to detail with the props. You could read the words on the many letters that get torn up on stage. You could virtually make out the prices on the clothes tags in Julia’s shop.
All this contributes to its successfully telling the story very clearly. It’s not a play with which either of us are that familiar, yet we had no problem whatsoever keeping up with the Shakespearean plot of Proteus’s descent from decent guy into near-rapist, Julia’s attempts to win him back and the machinations at the Milanese Court. The use of music to further the story is partly successful. In this version, Valentine and Proteus are rock guitarists, which gives a nice twist to how you imagine their back-story to be. Unfortunately, the lyrics to their songs sound a bit distorted and you can’t always make out what they are singing. There was also one song where the guitars were frankly way out of tune and it rather destroyed the scene – I recognised the faintest look of terror in one of the actors’ eyes as he heard the “music” they were making. I liked the idea of doing “Who is Silvia” as a rap song – it was just a pity that Malachi Kirby had his back to the audience whilst he was performing it. Didn’t quite understand why that happened.
There are a few really good performances. Top of the list must be Alexander Cobb’s Proteus. Resembling an amicable Michael Gove – if you can imagine that – he has a great way of confiding in the audience with his soliloquies, and his vocal clarity expresses every nuance of his inner turmoil. He’s good with the comic bits too. In the dark scene which nearly culminates in his raping Silvia he was maniacally disturbing. By contrast I found Joe Doyle’s Valentine to be slightly underplayed, looking the part but he garbled a few lines and I wasn’t entirely convinced by his swift acceptance of Proteus back as a friend at the end. Maybe that’s Shakespeare’s fault. I enjoyed much more Vicki Manderson’s Speed, Valentine’s page, who was delightfully sarcastic, deft in movement and crystal clear vocally.
Another excellent performance comes from Matthew Flynn as the Duke. Oozing sexual ambiguity and a fair degree of malevolence he is exactly how you would imagine a too-rich, too-successful couturier would be. Playing his daughter, Silvia, Helen Goalen is appropriately glamorous, and convincingly infuriated, bewitched and devastated as required by the text at different times.
Am I sounding as though I’m holding back from full appreciation of this production? That’s because I am. There are several lengthy scenes with no dialogue – for example the introduction to the busy streets of Verona, and lots of catwalk posing and dealing with the difficult Duke boss in Milan – that go on way too long. What starts as being punchy dwindles into self-indulgence as the minutes tick pass. The presentation of the outlaws as four ladies wearing false beards is straight out of Monty Python – any minute I was expecting a “What have the Romans done for us” or a “bloody Vikings” comment. It’s completely out of keeping with the gritty realism of rest of the production. I know it was meant to be funny, but when they were jocularly hopping about I found it hard to watch. The second half, as a whole, got a bit boring I’m afraid. I think that, by that time, I needed some “less is more” aspect to the production – this is definitely a “more is more” show. You can have too much of a good thing.
And then there is the character of Launce, here played by a woman. Launce must be one of the most tedious Shakespearean clowns, talking interminable rubbish about his dog, simply so he can get some “cur” lines in. It must be a huge task to try to make this character and his/her scenes funny, and full credit to the team for coming up with a new idea. However, replacing the traditional clown with a dippy ladette straight out of Legally Blonde merely replaced one irksome character with another. Clemmie Sveaas absolutely did her best to bring life to those words but I found it all immensely tedious. The scene where she was required to relieve herself in a paper cup I felt was excruciatingly embarrassing. The silent response from the audience at these antics spoke volumes.
If you like your Shakespeare racy, it’s certainly worth seeing. Visually, it’s a feast, plus you’ve also got Alexander Cobb’s telling performance to enjoy. If you can ignore the self-indulgences, it’s a good evening out.