The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an addictively silly, melodramatic and illogical play, but SATTF approach it with their usual confidence, offering us a lighthearted and flippant production that’s a huge contrast to the previous production in the current season, Richard III. Their take on that play was psychologically gripping and emotionally draining: a focussed and ultra-serious production. The SATTF Two Gentlemen is full of laughs, peppered as it is with bizarre plot-turns and unexpected changes of heart, cross-dressing, a bit with a dog, and plenty of song and dance.
Considered to be one of Shakespeare’s very earliest plays and possibly his first, the plot of Two Gentlemen twists and turns around a central narrative. Two best friends, Valentine and Proteus, have both left home to seek their betterment in the city of Milan. It’s a story about youthful love, friendship and betrayal, with shades of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but less romantic than the first, less believable even than the second, and less heady and beguiling than the third. Do not let this put you off, for what is delightful about Andrew Hilton’s production is that it does not take itself too seriously: the production, like the play, is designed to entertain, in all its soap-opera glory.
Set in a vaguely turn-of-the-century land of sunshine and boulevards with little café tables, the setting is visually relaxing, and there is Gilbert and Sullivan-esque singing and dancing at the start of some of the scenes. The characters appear genteel but almost to a wo/man reveal themselves to be prone to massive contradictions, overreactions and hyperbole. Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Julia in particular is a superb mixture of silly tantrums, self-conscious preening, spirit-of-adventure, and Helena-style ardency – more of a caricature than a nuanced portrayal.
Hilton and his company have made certain choices in achieving this lightness and brightness of touch that makes this an evening of gentle pleasures. It is very chaste, for a start, where all that wooing and pursuing of members of the opposite sex could have been done bawdily, they shy away from it. There’s a docile dog called Crab – the docile bit is Hilton’s choice, the dog comes from Shakespeare (the presence of a dog onstage clearly wins it for some of the audience, and there’s no denying that the dog is well directed).
There seems too to have been a decision made on the playing of the characters of Proteus (the changeable one) and Valentine (the true). Piers Wehner plays an apparently valiant Proteus, who appears right and good even as he betrays his oldest friend, whilst Jack Bannell’s foppish Valentine is immature and inconstant-seeming, despite all evidence to the contrary. Perhaps it is for this reason that the final ridiculous scene – in which Valentine offers the love of his life to his best friend (and betrayer) – works at all. For while Proteus notoriously begins the scene on the brink of raping the object of his unrequited love, while watched by Valentine and Julia, he ends the scene swearing his love (once again) for Julia. If Proteus were less believable, and Valentine more respected, this scene might ruin things – as it is, it’s far-fetched but fitting. Silvia is amused, Julia is swooning, and they all live happily ever after.
By following Richard III with this broad comedy caper, Hilton and company seem capable of anything. With Tom Morris’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream sparking excitable debate over at Bristol Old Vic, 2013 is a very good year for Shakespeare in Bristol.