Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1970)

By William Shakespeare (c1590)
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, July 1970
Aldwych Theatre, London, December 1970

There are swimming pools in Verona and Milan; cigars and coffee at the Duke’s; outlawed hippies in the forest. Fashions vary between bikini and maxi; the Duke wears gown and mortarboard. Silvia is serenaded by a pop group. Sir Eglamour seems to be a Rover Scout. (Illustrated London News, 8.8.70)

The play was The Two Gentlemen of Verona at Stratford in 1970. As the reader may have guessed, it was a modern-dress production. Directors always feel a need to dress this play up, feeling that it can’t be done straight. The impulse is usually to turn it into a musical. I remember a student production at Oxford in the late Seventies, where ‘Caz’ Phillips (now better known as Caryl Phillips, distinguished novelist and essayist) directed an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular, stuffed to the gills with tricksy stage business and visual gags.

Does it have to be that way?  The version in the BBC Shakespeare series showed that it can be played straight, even if the results were pretty wooden. Generally agreed to be Shakespeare’s first play, Two Gentlemen anticipates themes that the dramatist would return to later. It also features his first of many cross-dressed heroines – Julia, played in the 1970 RSC production by Helen Mirren.

Reviewing the RSC’s version for The Times, Irving Wardle suggested that “the play deals with a specifically Elizabethan contest between love and friendship” and, as a result, “it appears more confused and implausible to us than it would have done to Shakespeare’s public.” Certainly it has to be taken in the context of a Renaissance debate which often privileged male friendship above the demands of heterosexuality. This is why putting the play into modern dress poses particular problems: in our culture, men who address one another as “my loving Proteus” and “sweet Valentine” are assumed to be more than good friends.

In the play the friendship in question is put under pressure when the aptly named ‘Proteus’ abandons his first love, Julia, and falls for Silvia, to whom Valentine is engaged. Julia disguises herself as a page, ‘Sebastian’, and pursues her loved one to Milan, where she enters the service of the unwitting Proteus and witnesses his infidelity. The action concludes in a scene, notoriously difficult to bring off in the theatre, where Proteus threatens to rape Silvia if she will not yield to him voluntarily; whereupon Valentine displays the depth of his ‘friendship’ by offering to hand Silvia over to him. The resultant tension is resolved in what Stanley Wells has called “the least plausible of Shakespeare’s happy endings” – the original couples are paired off, all “jars” dissolved in “triumphs, mirth and rare solemnity”.

Already present in this first play (although it’s hard to believe there weren’t other apprentice works lost to us) was a power of language that drew the envy of his contemporaries. Perhaps, as much as 3 Henry VI, it was this play that incited the author of Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit (1592) to lay into the new arriviste, this “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you”. Here was a poetry ripe to be placed in the service of stagecraft:

For Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
Make tigers tame and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands. (III.ii.77-80)

How those lines demand to be spoken, as Hamlet would have wished, “trippingly on the tongue”!

Joy Leslie Gibson, in her study of ‘the Elizabethan boy player’, draws attention to another feature of Shakespeare’s writing established from the outset. Today’s actresses phrase speeches in their own way: having bigger rib-cages than Shakespeare’s boy players, they don’t need to take as many breaths as a smaller boy would. In the speeches she analyses, it’s possible to break the blank verse, or the prose, into small phrases, capable of being spoken by a boy without destroying the sense. Particularly in the earlier plays, Gibson notes, the verse for the women’s parts is very accented, giving the maximum help to the boy player. Julia’s speech beginning “Nay would I were so angered with the same” (I.ii.102-) is a case in point.

Julia also has one of the most striking speeches in the play (IV.iv.149-63), one of those moments, much picked over by academics, when Shakespeare seems to hold up a mirror to gender ‘identity’:

Julia, disguised as a page, invents for her rival Silvia (now pursued by Julia’s fiancĂ©, Proteus), a story that describes her apparent male self playing ‘the woman’s part’ in the clothes of her real female self. The layers insulating this story from reality enable her to reveal herself through her disguise, to express her deep grief at being abandoned, and to engender a sympathetic response from her onstage and offstage audience”. (Lenz et al, p13)

Whether we accept this as Shakespeare’s intention depends on how far he expected his audiences to suppress their awareness of the boy player before their eyes and to accept a “real female self” as Julia’s core identity. As the editor of the Arden edition points out, “the verbal equivocations about Julia’s gender are intensified in the final scene”, once Julia reveals herself (V.iv.98) yet remains in the costume of the boy page. Proteus, Valentine and Silvia now know her identity as a woman but when the Duke enters shortly afterwards he mistakes her for a “boy [who] hath grace in him”.

Robin Phillips, director of the 1970 production, recalls that he approached the play with reluctance: “When I was first asked to do it I thought, God, no, because I’d never read it and when I’d seen it done it was always in fey little Victorian versions.” But although he considered it “not mature Shakespeare”, he still found an “incredible depth” in the piece:

It’s a play about love and friendship – and just how important friendship is once love becomes involved. It’s about the awful problems of adolescence – and they are awful. I set it in a finishing school because I wanted to show these young people emerging into adults – they had left school in every sense.

Opinion was divided on this production. Ronald Bryden in The Observer found the production “intelligent and unstereotyped”; the update “fits pretty well and doesn’t get in the way of fine, traditional verse speaking” (at least by Ian Richardson as Proteus). Harold Hobson was also impressed. “A transfiguration. Through modern eyes it penetrates to ancient truth,” he declared:

It treats with masterly nonchalance the more absurd parts of the story, but where the verse is great it is greatly spoken. Whether grave or playful, Mr Phillips’ touch is unfaltering, to the play’s essence totally loyal.

He found “sudden stabs of tenderness” in Mirren’s grief as the deserted Julia.

The Guardian regretted the “many visual and thematic inconsistencies” introduced by updating the action but recognised that they were done in a “spirit of affection” for an immature play. Resisting the temptation to broaden the comedy too far, Phillips had acknowledged the play’s “serious purpose” in a production that was a “victory of professionalism over playfulness”. However, Mirren proved a stumbling block for this critic:

…at the moment [she] shoves and pushes too much. She seems to overact at every point and must learn to allow the audience to come to her occasionally rather than rush at them.

The Times was enamoured of the design, “a ramped set… dominated by a group of revolving screens which alternatively [sic] glow like huge golden doors and carry magnified silhouettes from behind” and a “cantilevered balcony jutting vacantly across the stage”. But this critic, too, was unconvinced by Mirren:

Lacking a firm centre, the play subsides into an unfocused series of separate moments and performances, some of them very good… some not so good, like Helen Mirren’s Julia, who overplays the early scenes of maidenly caprice beyond the limits of sympathy, and subsequently settles into a butcher-boy jauntiness.

When Wardle reviewed the show again for its transfer to London six months later, he revised his opinion about the production:

Since I first saw the show its detail has been very much enriched, particularly in ingenious use of the set… Performances and staging come together to establish a firm style that takes up a definite relationship to the play: fanciful and ironic, admitting that it is not a great work but turning that admission to advantage.  

This time he singled out Estelle Kohler’s Silvia for mention; Mirren’s Julia goes unremarked.

Shakespeare Survey noted that the production

opened with a tableau of the lovers in silhouette and a recorded echo-song ‘Who is Silvia? Who is Valentine? Who is Proteus? Who is Julia?’, but addressed itself, in the main, to a clarification, along plausible psychological lines, of Proteus’s misconduct.

Some of the capricious business required of Mirren is recorded in this review. Julia sucked chewing-gum in I.ii, her thumb in II,vii, and rolled on her back to say, “Now kiss, embrace, contend, do what you will” (I.ii.126).

The Illustrated London News settled for grudging praise:

While nobody would be hyperbolical about the production, it is far better than one might have 
feared, occasional silliness apart… Call it, in general, a night of calm make-believe, rightly expressed by such players as Mr Richardson, Helen Mirren and Peter Egan [as Valentine].


Ronald Bryden, “Theatre: Germany’s Tragedy”, The Observer, 26 July 1970
William C Carroll, ‘Introduction’ to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd series (2004)
Judith Cook, Directors’ Theatre (1974)
Joy Leslie Gibson, Squeaking Cleopatras: The Elizabethan Boy Player (2000)
Harold Hobson, “Theatre: Rebel in trouble,” Sunday Times, 26 July 1970
Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz et al, ‘Introduction’ to The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed Lenz et al (1980)
Gareth Lloyd Evans, “Two Gentlemen of Verona at Stratford”, Guardian, 24 July 1970
Peter Thompson, “A necessary theatre: the Royal Shakespeare Company season 1970 reviewed”, Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971)
JC Trewin, “Theatre: A night of make believe”, Illustrated London News, 8 August 1970
Irving Wardle: “Bard and Beatles”, The Times, 24 July 1970
Irving Wardle, “Shakespeare enriched: Two Gentlemen of Verona”, The Times, 24 December 1970
Stanley Wells, Shakespeare, Sex and Love (2010)

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