By: William Shakespeare and John Fletcher (?)
Directed by: William Oldroyd
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Sunday 21st May 2006
What a treat this was! There had been so much to read when we booked for the first part of this Complete Works festival, that I didn’t really take in the details of many of the productions. So I was surprised (and as it turned out, not particularly delighted) to find Othello was an adaptation. I was just as surprised, but this time totally thrilled, to find out that this one-off rehearsed reading of The Two Noble Kinsmen was being done by the RSC Company touring The Canterbury Tales! The same group whom we’d seen and loved so much in January. They had kindly given up a free day in their very packed schedule, as well as the rehearsal time, of course, to give all of us this treat. Naturally, they were very warmly received at the start, and even more warmly applauded at the end. A few brave ones amongst them even stayed to answer a few questions, but more of that later.
The format was: an introduction by William Oldroyd, the assistant director for The Canterbury Tales and director of Two Noble Kinsmen, followed by a performance of the Knight’s tale from The Canterbury Tales, minus costumes, sets etc, followed by the rehearsed reading of Two Noble Kinsmen. They started with the original introduction by Chaucer (Mark Hadfield), bypassing the time in the tavern, and straight into the Knight’s tale. It was short, of course, covered the salient points (although Chaucer did have to nudge the knight back on track at one point), and I realised I was enjoying it much more than I did first time around. Perhaps I did just get the wrong end of the stick last time.
After the interval, the rehearsed reading began. Straight into the scene where the three queens (promotions there – in Chaucer it’s one queen and two duchesses) sue to Theseus to help them get their dead husband’s bodies to bury. Now Chaucer has Theseus agree pretty swiftly – doesn’t want to bore his readers – but Will (for we believe it was he who penned this scene) takes his time, savours every angle, even has the queens making the most unreasonable demands, to my mind. Only a genius can get away with this sort of thing! Not only do these women want Theseus to fight Creon so that they can bury their husbands, but he must DO IT NOW!, not mess about getting married to Hippolyta first, no chance. It’s no nooky for him till he gets the job done. What also impressed me with this scene is how the women all get a chance to speak, including Hippolyta and her sister Emilia. Fair enough, the knight’s only interested in the fighting bits of his tale, and so the women hardly feature, and that’s fine, but it’s also nice to hear them speak; it seems to me that that’s what Will so often did – gave people a voice who would otherwise never be heard.
Theseus responds pretty well to this badgering – well, the women do give him lots of reverence along the way – and soon Creon is out of office and there are two injured soldiers on the deck who’ve fought for the wrong side and ended up in prison. They get a bit more chat than before as well, telling each other how they’ll get through their life sentences with each other’s support and cousinly love. Boy, does that go out of the window as soon as they set eyes on Emilia.
The action is much brisker now in the play, compared to the story. Almost immediately, Theseus sends for Arcite to tell him he’s banished. Horror of horrors, he doesn’t want to go, but he heads off anyway, determined to come back and win his love, even though Palamon had first dibs on her. Palamon, still in prison, voices his concerns about this.
Now we come to the first major plot change – a whole new subplot about the jailer’s daughter, who has fallen in love with Palamon and arranges to free him. He then goes in search of Arcite, who with remarkable swiftness has reintroduced himself to Theseus’ country, disguised, and worked his way up to something like a squire, serving Emilia or possibly Theseus, I forget which. They meet and arrange to fight, and there’s a touching little scene where they help each other on with their armour, filched from Theseus’ store. It’s amazing how much they love and respect one another, and how willing they are to cut each other into little pieces for the sake of a woman, and one who, let it be remembered, has not yet been told about these frantic lovers, never mind given a choice in the matter! Before they do any real damage, Theseus, ever fond of a bit of hunting, arrives on the scene, and sets them the challenge – come back in a few months with three followers, and fight to the death, with the winner getting the woman. This is a shorter time frame than the Knight’s tale, and many fewer followers – Shakespeare and Fletcher obviously want to cut to the chase. Plus it’s harder to represent a hundred followers on stage compared to the printed, or rather hand-written page.
So off they go, back they come, and stop off at the nearest temple for a spot of prayer. Arcite prays to Mars, god of war, for victory. Palamon prays to Venus for success in love. And Emilia prays to Diana for continued chastity, or, failing that, that the best man wins. Now there’s a smart woman – hedging her bets with a plan B.
There’s an interesting change from the original at this point. The knight understandably gives us the fight in some detail. Shakespeare and Fletcher, on the other hand, ditch the fighting, and stay with Emilia, who has left the arena to await her fate. We hear the result of the battle by report, and so we can concentrate on her reaction. We also hear about Arcite falling off his horse, and he is brought on stage to give us his dying words, leaving Emilia to Palamon. Happy ending.
However, before the credits roll, let us return to the sub-plot. The jailer’s daughter, bless her little heart, has gone a bit crazy at the loss of Palamon. She was due to marry a young local man, but now she’s so far gone she’s convinced Palamon is coming back to marry her (or did Palamon make a promise he didn’t intend to keep?). She happens on a band of country folk who are preparing a small diversion for Theseus, a little dance, and as they’re short of a woman, they ask her to join in, which she does. The diversion, especially the introduction by their leader, a schoolmaster, is blatantly derived from the mechanicals play within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while the jailer’s daughter treats us to a reprise of Ophelia’s mad scenes from Hamlet – and none the worse for that. Why not recycle some of Will’s greatest hits? After all, we do it often enough nowadays.
After this, the jailer’s daughter is taken home, and to restore her wits, a doctor suggests they tell her that the young man she was due to wed is in fact Palamon come back for her. This seems to do the trick.
While typing this, it became very clear what the differences were between the Knight’s tale and Two Noble Kinsmen. The Knight’s tale is simply telling the story, with very few embellishments, and very little of the characters and their emotional involvement in the play, which is very suitable for a character such as the Knight. By contrast, Two Noble Kinsmen really fleshes out the bare bones, makes the characters much more realistic, and gives us a much fuller emotional, as well as mental experience. The additional sub-plot adds depth, by showing us the flip side of the desperate, irrational love that seizes Arcite and Palamon. And although there’s plenty of humour in the staging of the Knight’s tale, it’s outgunned in that department by the play, as it is in all departments. Actually, it seemed funnier than the production we saw back in the mid-eighties, when it opened the Swan Theatre. Here’s hoping it’s put on again sometime soon, in a full production.
As far as figuring out which bits Shakespeare wrote and which Fletcher – who cares? The consensus in the post-show talk was that Shakespeare wrote the opening section with the queens pleading for revenge against Creon – very probable. The echoes of Will’s previous work may have been ‘homaged’ by Fletcher, and it was suggested that Will supplied the main speeches while Fletcher stitched it together. I’m not sure, but as I said before – who cares? I’d rather just sit down and enjoy the play.
Anything else from the post-show? Just that the actors themselves found that they could spot Shakespeare’s work because of how well it read, and how it improved with use. They should know.
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me