Two Gentlemen Of Verona – April 2013

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company: SATTF

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Wednesday 17th April 2013

One of the joys of arriving early to queue for our seats in the Tobacco Factory is the opportunity to see some of the cast chilling out before the show. Tonight we were lucky enough to see a major star relaxing on one of the sofas – Lollio, aka Crab. His long black form lay elegantly on the seat opposite; he was completely unfazed to be among his adoring public. Eventually, after a languorous stretch, he strolled into the auditorium to prepare for an arduous evening’s performance – more on that story later.

We sat in the front row at the far end opposite the entrance. The opening set consisted of three metal tables, each with white table clothes and two metal chairs. One of the tables had a sugar bowl, another had two small coffee cups while the third had a used plate with a knife and fork tucked tidily together. The platform in the left corner, now to our right, held the musicians at the start, and was used occasionally as a balcony during the performance. Each pillar had a square box for a base, creating extra seats. Two carved wooden chairs were used for the Milan court scenes, otherwise the stage was bare. Costumes were Edwardian in style.

The first scene made the relationship between Valentine and Proteus very clear. I got the impression that Valentine’s departure was partly triggered by Proteus allowing a woman to come between them, for all that he made out it was to develop his career, and that theirs was a friendship, or love, that had never been tested until this point. The formality of the language also reminded me that this is a tale of courtly love, with different rules to what we consider ‘normal’ behaviour, hence Valentine’s strange actions in the final scene.

Julia and her maid also gave us a good introduction to their characters in a scene which was clearly a template for Portia’s first chat with Nerissa in The Merchant Of Venice. Julia’s contrary attitude was well demonstrated in her attitude to the letter which Lucetta tempted her with, and I did wonder how this would be reconciled to her steadfastness in love later on.

Proteus was soon despatched to Milan to follow his friend, and then we were off to Milan ourselves to witness the change in Valentine’s attitude towards romance. He may not have been the brightest chap before falling for Sylvia, but he was certainly one of the biggest fools now. Speed was quick to spot Sylvia’s device in having Valentine write a love letter to himself, but the dumb lunk in question was completely bewildered by their strange conversation. It was a very entertaining scene.

Proteus took his leave of Julia, and we were in the perfect position to see the look on Julia’s face when the parting “holy kiss” was placed on her cheek instead of her lips. Not impressed. He did actually hit the target with a second kiss just before he left, which made up for it. And so to the big entrance. Crab sauntered on stage with some character or other – my text says Launce – and while Crab lay down to rest for a while (near us – we were so lucky!) this other chap wittered on for a bit about something or other until it was time for Crab to make his exit.

I tease. Of course the dog was a distraction, but Chris Donnelly was an excellent Launce, and managed to hold the stage despite his co-star’s presence. The shoes were placed on opposite pillar seats so Launce had a lot of movement to do, which helped engage our attention, and he delivered the lines so well that I could almost see his family weeping. With Launce’s departure, Crab stood up and followed, and as there were a few chairs to bring on for the next scene, the star had time to clear the stage without distracting us from the rest of the performance.

Lord Turio was nicely played as an Edwardian fop by Paul Currier, wearing a striped blazer and sporting a dandified moustache. The battle of wits between him and Valentine was good fun, and then the Duke, Sylvia’s father, entered with news of Proteus‘ arrival. Sadly, Proteus fell in love with Sylvia at first sight, and so the troubles began. Piers Wehner managed the transition from infatuated lover of Julia to villainous worshipper of Sylvia very well. His conscience pricked him for a while, but he soon thrust it behind him, along with his loving thoughts of Julia, and began plotting how to get Valentine out of the picture.

The story rattled along at a good clip. Julia made her plans to visit Proteus, and in this production Lucetta came with her dressed as a woman. I don’t know if there’s a different version of the text or if they simply inserted some new lines; either way, Lucetta’s comment about older women not being liable to sexual advances was well received. Julia’s skittishness had turned into impatience to see her love, and her conviction that he was still faithful to her, knowing what she would find in Milan, was more sad than funny.

Proteus betrayed his erstwhile friend with a show of great reluctance, and the Duke discovering Valentine’s ladder was a very funny scene. Valentine wore the necessary bulky coat, and his naivety was well to the fore again. Instead of realising that he’d been rumbled, he completely believed the Duke’s story of a love affair, possibly even hoping that with his own passion, the Duke would be more favourably inclined when Valentine and Sylvia’s elopement was discovered. His banishment and Sylvia’s unhappiness, together with Julia’s arrival in Milan and discovery of Proteus’ unfaithfulness, were all well done and we were soon back in the forest where Sylvia was trying to keep away from Proteus by climbing one of the pillars.

After Valentine had rescued her and Proteus had apologised and been reconciled to him, Valentine’s ‘gift’ of Sylvia to Proteus was greeted with astonishment by the audience, as it should be. The Duke then resolved all problems by welcoming Valentine as his future son-in-law and Valentine finished the text by offering “one feast, one house, one mutual happiness”. Sylvia and Julia, who was still in her manly disguise, looked at each other. Then Julia held out her elbow, Sylvia took it and the two women strode off stage together to the amazement of their partners and to our laughter and applause. It was a great way to finish things, and we applauded long and loud as they took their bows, with Crab getting an extra burst, naturally.

I haven’t gone into a lot of detail as this was a good straightforward staging with a few nice touches, such as the ending. There were a lot of echoes for me tonight. I took a quick note that the parting of Speed and Launce echoed their master’s parting, but for the life of me I can’t spot where that was in the text unless it’s the recital of the ‘virtues’ of a woman, presumably one that Launce is considering marrying. This scene also echoes the one in Comedy Of Errors, and the repetition of the letter-tearing was another item that came across clearly tonight. Steve spotted that Crab yawned at an appropriate moment, and while the dog was good, the humans were even better. Apart from Proteus, Turio and Launce, I felt that Marc Geoffrey was splendid as Speed, and Nickie Goldie made the most of Lucetta. Dorothea Myer-Bennett and Lisa Kay were very strong as Julia and Sylvia respectively, and the rest of the cast gave good support in a variety of roles. The only weak link this time was the music; normally excellent, this was rather off-key and weak. It didn’t spoil the performance all that much, but better music would have lifted our rating even higher.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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