Michael Marcus as Valentine and Martin Bassindale as Speed.
‘The bit with the dog,’ according to Shakespeare in Love, both the film – and, indeed, its forthcoming stage adaptation -was Elizabeth I’s favourite aspect of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Crab, for so he is called, has historically been something of a canine celebrity; ‘I’d describe my approach as instinctive rather than theoretical’, Woolly (who played Crab in the 1990s at the RSC) told the Glasgow Herald when asked about his approach to acting. The sagacious Woolly would no doubt have much to say abou Nicholas Ridout’s recent study of whether animal performers, who cannot (fully) comprehend the context of what they are asked to do onstage, can ever be said to be ‘acting’ (he asks the same question of children, but we won’t go down that fraught alleyway today).
Crab, with his (absent) loyalty and propensity to piss all over fine ladies, is often a touchstone for highlighting the human characters’ lack of civility and their hypocrisy when it comes to living up to the ideals of friendship and courtly love that they spend so many words professing. Inspired by Elizabeth, my first question to Simon Godwin about his new production of the play for the RSC was about the (real flesh and blood) dog he used: could he act? Pleasingly, he describes company’s dog as ‘not acting in the sense of feigning emotion but rather taking action’. Godwin’s emphasis on the dog’s way of ‘being there’, ‘being present’ encapsulates this animal performer’s ability to be both at once more truthful and less deliberately theatrical than the human actors, and the way that in the fictional world of the play this maps on to a stark distinction between the blunt beast and the flamboyant and insincere aspirations to nobility and kindness of many of the human characters. As Wittgenstein pondered, ‘Why can’t a dog simulate pain? Is he too honest?’
Two Gentlemen of Verona has been a fertile source of adaptations over the years; from nineteenth century Covent Garden opera to 1970s rock musical, and from a shimmery painting by Holman Hunt to this fantastic earworm of‘Who is Silvia’ by the King’s Singers to a stomping, snarling version by RashDash in Northampton. Two Gents has a strong xylem of quintessentially Shakespearean elements: cross-dressing, (not so) neat love-plots, city comedy, double entendres, and iambic Aprils weighted with melancholy meaning (‘How this spring of love resembleth| The uncertain glory of an April day…’). And yet, the play has not been performed in full production at the RST for 45 years. Godwin described the process of rehearsing the play as ‘daunting coming to it after such a length of time’, but also ‘liberating’. He sees it as ‘an advantage’ that audiences don’t know this play as well as they might know other Shakespearean texts.
Rather than (like Gwyneth Paltrow lip-synching along in the audience to Valentine’s romantic speeches in Shakespeare in Love) being a play where ‘everyone can sing along’, he argued, the absence of ‘over-familiarity’ allows for greater ‘suspense’ as the actors tell the story. Godwin’s method of developing the tenor of the story involved a careful attention to the nuances of space: ‘we went to a forest with all the actors to see what it’d be like to live in a forest’, he tells me, and he also did work in Verona and Milan, finding the former to be ‘still a little bit provincial and Milan extremely fashionable’. The result of investigating this clashing salmagundi of locations created an ‘urban fairytale’, which fits well with what he calls the ‘heightened’ reality of the play. In Two Gents, he tells me, ‘the quality of the relationship to the normative is different’, we see characters ‘making heightened choices…the normal world is heightened’.
Staging the first full production in just under half a century might imply an imperative for a director to probe how much the play can be brought up to date. Two Gentlemen of Verona contains some markedly archaic elements (like outlaws living in a forest), and Godwin said he was keen to find ‘modern equivalents to all those challenges’. Yet, he stressed, so much of the play, ‘the friendship, the romance, the sense of entitlement to everything we want…is very modern’. In the final scenes, this ‘sense of entitlement’ manifests in a potentially very problematic way. The denouement basically involves a lot of men squaring up to each other and proclaiming ‘Silvia is mine!’ Most of these grasping patriarchal pronouncements could be variously weighted as comic, menacing, or even half-hearted, however there is no escaping the fact that in the text Silvia’s suitor Proteus makes a naked threat to rape her: ‘if the gentle spirit of moving words| Can in no way change you to a milder form,| I’ll woo you like a soldier at arm’s end,| And love you ‘gainst the nature of love – force ye’ before Valentine offers her to Proteus like so much property ‘All that was mine in Silvia I give thee’.
Several previous productions have cut or skated around these exchanges, but Godwin finds it interesting that as the men squabble over and bully her, Silvia is given absolutely no lines. He thus took the opportunity to ‘re-explore Silvia’s silence when Valentine hands her back to Proteus’, and to investigate what, in the characters’ friendships and relationships, constitutes ‘acceptable levels of violence and the political implications of violence’. He notes that the ‘quick’, neat ending of the text makes it particularly ‘difficult’, but draws a parallel with the telling end-of-play silences of other Shakespearean heroines.
Godwin describes his Two Gents as in some ways a ‘lens…looking forward and looking back’ at Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew (who is given no words or stage-directions to indicate whether in fact she does place her hand under Petruchio’s foot when he asks) and Isabella in Measure for Measure (who has no lines to respond to the Duke’s assertive rhetorical question of a marriage-offer). Directors tend to allow meaning to pour in to these moments of silence, exploring the rich ambiguities of the (truncated) text. In Phyllida Lloyd’s Shrew, for instance, Katherine’s (played by Kathryn Hunter) textual silence was filled instead with her and the other women’s mocking laughter and left the phallocrats truly discomfited. Michelle Gomez a few years ago, however, chose a zombie-like silence for her Katherine: broken and mute, she was little different from the blow-up sex-dolls that the male characters in this production habitually tossed around onstage.
Godwin’s attention to the possibility of silence to constitute an opulent and powerful presence in both the crucial last act and in the lighter comic moments involving a mute animal (Woolly’s loquacity in the Glasgow Herald aside) suggest that his will be an attentive Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Simon Godwin’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona is at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon-Avon, from 12th July – 4th September 2014