I was to start the review a different way and then I thought “screw it, let’s not faff about”: what I really liked about The Two Gentlemen of Verona – a Shakespeare play I hadn’t seen before and knew little about – was its unexpected feminist angle. Nominally, it’s a comedy about the vagaries of romantic love but it’s the other kinds of love that are well and truly tested: friendship, loyalty, and the love of one man for his dog. And the girls stand their ground much better than the boys. In the new RSC production directed by Simon Godwin, these qualities sparkle bright.
Valentine and Proteus grew up together in Verona and, although still close, have different aspirations: Proteus – his soul filled with romance – wants to woo Julia. Valentine – his soul filled with adventure – denounces romantic love and wants to travel. And so he goes to Milan where, as so often in life, his plans go awry, he meets Sylvia and falls madly in love. When Proteus is made to leave Verona and go to Milan, he promises Julia eternal love. But when he is reunited with Valentine and introduced to Sylvia, he himself falls infatuated, forgetting promises of love and friendship.
It feels like a young person’s play in the best possible way. All characters fumble with choices and unfamiliar feelings and the play’s pleasures come from seeing them gasp at new discoveries, in themselves and in others. Simon Godwin gives the story a modern – vaguely italian – setting but without gimmicks. He works the young angle by focusing on his four leads, who work exceptionally well together: they are all cut from the same cloth, a fresh-faced honesty and immediacy that colours each character differently but bounds them together. Whenever the four interact, there is friction of something real at stake, whether it’s the comic stumbles of love or the agony of a betrayed friendship.
Mark Arends’ Proteus has an open sincere quality, which in turn makes his betrayals cut deep. Arends, engaging and graceful, convinces us that Proteus behaves unthinkingly rather than shrewdly. Michael Marcus’ Valentine has a thirst for life and a trusting soul, and his wholehearted commitment is particularly affecting in the scenes when he loses Sylvia or confronts Proteus. Dazzling, direct and with the kind of confidence that rules the world, Sarah McRae’s Sylvia could be the woman who eats other women alive (and in another story, she ‘d probably be). Instead, Sylvia’s moral mettle and steadfast friendship with Julia is a particular source of joy. Pearl Chanda’s Julia starts naive but has the bravery to take the bull by the horns and she is rewarded with knowledge (and the man of her heart if she wants him). Chanda navigates the change – or rather the metamorphosis – beautifully.
This being Shakespeare, these are hardly the only stories in the play: Martin Bassindale’s Speed, servant to Valentine, is twinkly and one step ahead of his master – even if that means he frequently trips him over. Leigh Quinn’s Lucetta serves Julia with a spirited sassy attitude, and sometimes pushes the boundaries and just serves with an attitude. And last but not least, we have Lance – played by Roger Morlidge – and his dog Crab, “the most scene-stealing non-speaking role in the canon”. (The quote is from The Oxford Shakespeare – The Complete Works. I am stealing it because it’s true and can’t be improved). In story terms, Lance is supposed to serve Proteus, but his only love and focus is Crab, and so is ours. It’s impossible to have a dog on stage and anyone paying attention to anything else.
The play feels simpler than other Shakespeare comedies, but also modern. It’s young people doing what young people do, unthinkingly, bravely, trustingly. The production keeps the approach deceptively simple, and the result is playful, fresh, effortless.
The production will be broadcast live to cinemas on 3 September 2014.