In Fair Verona

Next week, I’ll be leading a seminar on The Two Gentlemen of Verona, so, in preparation, I went to see the RSC’s production. It was the first time I’ve seen the play in performance; it’s also the first time in 33 years that the play has been performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (though it has played at the RSC’s Swan Theatre). The performance I saw was captioned, so the text was shown on screens pretty much directly in my eye-line. This meant I found myself both watching and reading the play; helpful, given that I needed to reread the play, but a slightly different viewing experience, I am sure. I can’t resist reading surtitles: why is that? Perhaps there’s a sense that, if I ignore them, I’m missing out? Maybe I just have too short an attention span. Anyway, I’m grateful to the captions for the excellent description of Sir Thurio’s song as ‘in the style of the Smiths’ Morrissey’ (though I wasn’t sure that it was a good impersonation; Morrissey fans may provide insight here).

As I was half-watching and half-reading I may have been made increasingly aware of the connections between Two Gents and Shakespeare’s other plays. In his brilliant chronological catalogue of Renaissance drama, Martin Wiggins lists 1594 as the date of Two Gents first performance. The next play Shakespeare wrote, according to this chronology, was Romeo and Juliet, in 1595, and in the same year, he also wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In terms of thematic connections, this makes a lot of sense. It’s not just that Romeo and Juliet is also set in Verona, it’s that Romeo, like Valentine, wants to gain access to his forbidden lover by climbing through her chamber window; it’s that the name Friar Laurence is used in both plays (he’s a character in Romeo, but just a name in Two Gents); it’s that both plays suggest to us the precariousness of that which we call comedy. The final lines of Two Gents even seem to anticipate those of the later play. Two Gents ends like this:

That done, our day of marriage shall be yours,
One feast, one house, one mutual happiness.

Romeo and Juliet begins like this:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

Valentine gestures towards a kind of unity, though it is a unity which can seem forced and unstable (as it did in this production). The Prologue to Romeo and Juliet starts with disharmony between households, though the play ultimately leads to what seems to be a sombre unity: the households join together to mourn the deaths of their beloved. The plays, like, it should be said, many others of the period, discover problems at every turn, which is why the term ‘problem play’, sometimes used in relation to Two Gents is itself so problematic. What might be an unproblematic play? A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which surely draws on Two Gents – both plays pun endlessly on the proximity of love and hate, as, in fact, does Romeo and Juliet – is less frequently thought of as problematic, even though, in many ways, it’s a dark and unsettling play.

One of the things which modern commentators have found so unsettling about Two Gents is that Valentine appears to offer Silvia to Proteus, the man who, moments earlier, was ready to rape her. Valentine, reconciling with his repentant friend, says ‘All that was mine in Silvia I give to thee’. I didn’t actually feel that this production was particularly interested in addressing this line as a problematic moment: it seemed to me to be a rhetorical gesture, rather than an amorous invitation, as it were. Instead, to my mind, Valentine and Silvia emerge as mutually happy, both having remained emotionally faithful to each other throughout the play. There are potential problems here, of course. Valentine has turned capriciously from putting a gun to Proteus’ head to trying to tie things together neatly and his final lines surely misjudge the tone of the ending. But the attention, rather, is on Julia and Proteus, who may, or may not, attempt to repair their damaged relationship. At the end, Silvia and Valentine leave the stage together, to the tune of what the surtitles describe as ‘poignant clarinet music’, but Julia and Proteus remain apart. They make a move towards each other, but the lights are down long before they meet.

Pronounce it for me, Sir

This is a short extract of a longer review which will soon appear on the Reviewing Shakespeare website.

Macbeth is a play by turns familiar and strange. It is one of the most quotable and quoted plays in Shakespeare’s canon and is performed regularly, by professional and amateur companies alike, yet it is a play which features witches and in which, it is said, horses, breaking loose from their stalls, eat each other. Strange, yet familiar, it became the latest play (after Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and eight others) to be staged in Original Pronunciation (OP) rather than the standard modern pronunciation, which, in practice, usually means Received Pronunciation (RP). Played under the auspices of Read Not Dead – a superb enterprise designed to promote the performance of rarely-performed plays from the English Renaissance – it was, perhaps, an unusual choice for the series: less Read Not Dead, more Said Not Dead; frequently performed but not spoken in this way since the seventeenth-century. Like other Read Not Dead shows, this was a staged reading in which the actors had their scripts with them on stage.

Professor David Crystal (who played the part of the Doctor) has championed OP for the last decadearguing that it illuminates puns which may otherwise have been obscured and creates new assonances and rhythms which give lines a fresh impact. In the programme notes, much was made of how OP performance reintroduces lost rhymes such as the final couplet: ‘So thanks to all at once, and each to one,/Whom we invite to see us crowned at Scone’ (5.11.40-1) where ‘one’ sounds like ‘own’. The Witches, the play’s great purveyors of rhyme, benefited most in this regard. So, ‘babe’ (4.1.30) sounded like ‘bab’ and rhymed with ‘drab’ (4.1.31) and most noticeably of all, ‘heath’ (1.1.6) sounded like ‘heth’ and rhymed with Macbeth. The heth/Macbeth rhyme certainly has much to recommend it and chimes well with many of the other couplets, but there’s something attractive too about the slight discordancy to the modern half-rhyme. I wonder, despite the overflow of positive feeling towards OP, whether the original is always better (and, also, whether we can be sure that what we are hearing is the original).

This review continues at Reviewing Shakespeare, but for a short sample of OP see Ben Crystal playing Richard II below.

See Better, Lear

This post contains spoilers. King Lear is still playing at the National Theatre and is to be broadcast live in cinemas in May so it might be worth skipping this post if you intend to see the production (perhaps returning here once you’ve seen it?) I’ll try and watch one of the live screenings myself and I’ll be interested to see how the elaborate, revolving set is captured by the eye of the film cameras. For now, though, I want to share a few thoughts about the production, one of which will involve discussion of something which might be deemed a spoiler. As they say when revealing the football results on the news before Match of the Day: if you don’t want to see the scores, look away now.

I’ll start with the spoiler, which was thoughtlessly revealed by Michael Billington in his Guardian review. The mad King Lear (Simon Russell Beale), having played out the trial scene in what is apparently a bathroom, bludgeons the Fool (Adrian Scarborough) to death in a bathtub. It’s an interesting and potentially powerful moment, in which Lear’s extraordinary anger, misdirected, destroys his beloved truth-telling servant. It makes some sense to kill the Fool: he disappears from the play after this moment and performers have often tried to explain his absence, by having him die, or by suggesting he is near death. I’d be interested to see this scene again but it seemed to me curiously underwhelming. I say the Fool was bludgeoned, but, in truth, he was merely given a couple of whacks; the beating isn’t extreme enough to make it entirely clear that he’s dead and this is compounded by the fact that he speaks his final line ‘And I’ll go to bed at noon’ from within the bathtub (if he’s alive at this point, when exactly does he die?) and by the slightly odd reactions of the other characters. There are definitely gestures and facial expressions which indicate that the Fool has been badly beaten, but the reactions suggest mild disgust rather than horror. Now, this might be another area in which sightlines can have a drastic effect on the way scenes are received (and how appropriate to talk of sightlines in a play as obsessed with seeing as King Lear). I imagine that those sitting centrally, or higher up, will have had completely different access to the scene (and I’ll be interested, then, to see how it appears in the cinema) but I suspect that the moment has been botched a little. It wouldn’t have been hard to have given the scene more punch and clarity, at least for those who can’t see the Fool’s face.

It may be that my response to this was, at least partly, the result of seating arrangements, but I detected an anticlimactic element to Edgar’s story arch as well. However, while I was a little bemused by the death of the Fool, I was persuaded by the portrayal of Edgar (Tom Brooke). Towards the end of both the quarto and Folio texts, Edgar, heralded by trumpets, enters, armed, to challenge Edmund; a fight ensues and he wins out. In Mendes’ production, this entire scene was stripped back. Instead of a fight, Edgar simply knifed Edmund (Sam Troughton). Justified as it may be, this was not an act of valiance. Edgar, first appearing in the production with a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was presented as a dissolute figure, but if one might have expected, from here, a Hal-like journey towards military success and future rule, this expectation was thwarted. There’s no sense that he can, or, indeed, wants to rule ‘the gored state’, as Albany suggests. As in the Folio text, Edgar speaks the final lines, but unlike in the Folio, he does so alone, with only the dead for company. There is no dead march; the bodies are not carried from the stage. As well as showing the poverty of unaccommodated man, King Lear shows the majesty, the ceremony, of tragedy; in the end this production, usefully, I thought, deflated some of those majestic elements.


A fuller review will appear in Cahiers Élisabéthains.