It had never occurred to me that the Sam Wanamaker theatre could be transformed into a 1960s gig, and I don’t think it had occurred to the builders of the Wanamaker, either. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a collaboration between the Globe and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse that definitely caters to the demographic of subscribers who grew up in the ‘60s. Yet the production somehow enchants everyone else, too, with its experimental attempt to bring amps and rock n’ roll to the candlelit stage.
Noted as possibly Shakespeare’s first play, Two Gents follows friends Valentine and Proteus through changing loves, rash decisions, and friendship that forgives perhaps when it should not. Valentine prepares to leave for Milan to seek love and new horizons. Proteus stays home with his love, Julia, swapping secret messages in the form of 45 vinyls until he too is sent off to Milan. There, Proteus quickly falls for Valentine’s love, Sylvia, and jealously slanders his friend so that he can have Sylvia for himself. Chaos of betrayal and violence ensues, tearing open wounds between the lovers and friends until the point which the script says is a happy ending, but the characters certainly say otherwise.
Although the plot itself is that of a love quadrangle – a Shakespeare classic – the real character in this production is the music. Innovative composition is put first, sampling the sounds of the 1960s from Bob Dylan to Mo-Town, blues and jazz, to the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. Only the music serves as a sign of changing time and place. As the characters move from Verona to Milan, the music shifts too from the soft sounds of Jim Reeves to the pop and British Invasion styled sounds of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Milan is clearly meant to be the space for the young and free. This section of the play also seems to savour a nostalgia for the era, with pop cultural references to Adam West in Batman and musical references that excited and humoured the audience. As Proteus falls deeper and deeper into lust and jealousy, the music begins to sound grittier, with reverberating guitars, thrumming bass, and strong multi-part harmonies that envelop the Wanamaker in a powerful wall of sound.
With such a huge and bold experiment at stake, there are many dramaturgical questions that the play fiddles with but sadly doesn’t seem to resolve. Frequently, the concept is not supported by other theatrical elements to the point of distraction. The programme includes an interview with director Nick Bagnall and composer James Fortune in which Bagnall states, ‘We have to make sure that the concept we’ve thrown at the play doesn’t drown it, because the more we do this play, the more we fall in love with it.’ Their insight is wise and their craftsmanship highly innovative and exciting, but sadly, I would say that the concept (including the microphones and amps) often drowned out the story, and occasionally the character’s lines too. Since the gorgeous gig set took up the majority of the small Wanamaker stage, it dominated and defined each setting. Yet, the gig set-up itself never changed or acknowledged changes in time and place. For instance, do the characters, as they slip onto the gig set and ready their instruments, become anonymous musicians or are they performing as themselves?
The largest question left unresolved in this musical experimentation is: how exactly do you stage a Shakespearean musical? Does it function like a ballet, with music accentuating and choreographing the action? Or is it like a jukebox musical with the text leading into bursts of song? The first act is more instrumental, with long and sometimes awkward pauses between scenes for musical interludes meant to summarise the upcoming scene. The second act more successfully merges music with text and narrative, as characters take up microphones to sing entire soliloquies as ballads containing only Shakespeare’s words and a 1960s sound. Julia and Sylvia’s ending is dramatically changed due to an additional final encore of a gritty, riffing rock song that howls as ‘loneliness befalls [them]’ even as their lovers congratulate themselves on the upcoming weddings. The result is something entirely new to me: a desire to put a record on the turntable, listen and sing along to Shakespeare. While the concept still has theatrical kinks to work out, it is a sound I could certainly listen to again.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is on until 1st October 2016 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Click here for more details.