Two Gentlemen Of Verona – August 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Guti Fraga

Company: Nos Do Morro and Gallery37

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Sunday 27th August 2006

This was our first visit to the Courtyard Theatre, so I had put all my expectations to one side on two counts. Both the play and the venue turned out to be excellent.

First the theatre itself. This is a larger version of the Swan, much larger, and at first I wondered what sort of atmosphere there would be when there was so much space to fill. The flat, black stage reminded me of so many Swan productions, and there seemed to be the usual balconies and side entrances, although the centrepiece at the back may be part of the Henrys set. [Yes, it is.] The seats were the best I’ve ever sat in – tall back, well padded, plenty of room, including leg room. Although we were in the second row of the stalls, we could see well enough over the heads in front. The screen for the surtitles (a last minute decision to show these, apparently) was placed centrally, roughly halfway up the back construction thingummy. This made it much easier to follow the action and read the lines, although our view was blocked occasionally by the actors.

But who needs the English version when the performance is this good? The production was a joint venture between Nos Do Morro, a company in Brazil which gives young people training in theatre and performing arts, and Gallery37, a project based in Birmingham which is due to spread through the country, which again helps young people with difficult backgrounds. Most of the dialogue was spoken in Portuguese, and I didn’t care. I know the play well enough, and from the opening exchange between Valentine and Proteus the acting made the emotions clear. I am going to have to rethink my preference for hearing the English, as it just isn’t working out.

To start with, a group of about twenty-six young folk assembled on stage, faces straight, looking quite sombre, and packed into a square formation. All at once, they broke into music, dance and song, very lively. I have no idea what the song was about, but it was fun. To finish, they closed back up into the square and ‘switched off’. Then the play proper began. The actors used benches at the back to wait their turn, giving a lovely informal feel to the whole piece.

The opening scene between Valentine and Proteus was well acted. It was clear who was the lover and who the traveller. Behind the main action, within a ring of cloth on the floor, stood two other actors, miming to amplify the exchange between the two friends. Throughout the play, actors stood in for scenery, sometimes as chairs, sometimes as doors or walls. One time the spare actors stood in a line, with two of the women holding cloths diagonally to represent doors. This allowed the actors involved in the scene to burst through one set of doors, and, as the walls and doors flowed round ahead of them, through another set. Very effective.

Cloth was another main feature of the production. As well as cloths being used to mark out spaces, various characters wore ponchos, wrapped bits of cloth round themselves, and the letters and papers used in the play were all cloth. The love letter Julia receives from Proteus is made of cloth patches, loosely stitched together, so that she can rip it apart easily.

Probably the star of the show, if there could be one in such an even-handed production, was the dog, Crab. Often a scene-stealer, this particular dog was of the human variety. He was so mischievous, cocking his leg over the audience, having a crap on stage, and shagging one character’s leg pretty vigorously. Each time, he would end up looking quite innocent, tongue hanging out, head on one side. Marvellous fun.

The British participants were mainly involved in the forest scenes, as part of the outlaw band, so we heard the occasional line in English during these scenes. Mostly, though, it was an energetic, expressive version of the play, which got across all the characters and their relationships really well. It was all the more amazing because the two groups had only got together to work on the piece a few days before, and this was the only scheduled performance, so they had no time to bed it in.

After the enthusiastic applause, we were treated to a post-show discussion with all of the cast and the director Guti Fraga, who founded Nos do Morro. This was basically a giant love-in, as all the actors were still pumped up after their excellent performance, and it obviously meant so much to them to have been so well received. Cicely Berry also joined them, and she is clearly much loved by all in both groups. I don’t remember much of what was said – a lot of the information is in the programme notes, anyway – but there was a lovely sense of camaraderie, of the depth of loving and support amongst the group, and the strength of Guti Fraga’s commitment to helping young people realise their potential in a region of the world that most of us would find challenging. It was a heart-warming experience, and I hope there will be more visits from companies such as this one, once the RSC has completed its redevelopment.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me