Despite my obsessive levels of theatregoing, I've only seen The Two Gentlemen of Verona once before, and it's not that surprising - even the RSC haven't staged it in Stratford since the '90s, and not on the main stage since the '80s. Widely regarded as Shakespeare's first solo-authored play, it's clearly not up to some of his later comedies, but certainly isn't without merit.
Like many of his cast, Godwin is making his RSC debut here, and if the programme notes are to be believed he was sought out because of his work with new playwrights at the Royal Court, with the intention that he treat this like he would a new play from an inexperienced writer. There's an interesting interview with him about what he sees as the giveaways that Shakespeare was a novice here, as well as an intention to approach this as a "problem play" rather than an all-out comedy.
And this approach seems to have paid off; the production is often very funny, but it does acknowledge the problem of a central figure who betrays first the woman he's promised himself to, and then his best friend as well. Arends' Proteus isn't an out-and-out villain but he's not far off it either; his endless justification that it's not him, but the abstract concept of love itself that's to blame for his actions, actually drew boos and hisses from tonight's audience.
Though I make no secret of the fact that I find Michael Marcus very nice to look at, I'm a bit more ambivalent about his acting ability. He can look a bit uncomfortable and wooden on stage, and so he starts out here, but he does relax a bit into the role as the evening goes on, and by the time he's inadvertently become the leader of a gang of outlaws he's become more of an engaging leading man. Marcus strikes me as one of those actors who's got potential but needs to work at it - this sort of experience is the kind that could get him there.
The leading ladies are a lot more natural, their easy friendship despite expecting to be rivals a pleasing contrast to Proteus's betrayals. Of course this production has three leading ladies as Julia isn't the only female to pretend to be male: The sad-eyed lurcher bitch Mossup plays Crab, the dog owned by Proteus' servant Launce (Roger Morlidge.) Crab is often held up as an example of Shakespeare's inexperience and proof that this was his debut: In a company as full of big personalities as the Lord Chamberlain's Men, he never again made the mistake of letting them be upstaged by a dog. And so it is with Mossup - whose performing credits are longer than some of the human actors' - as the rather grumpy dog whose owner takes the blame for his farts.
Paul Wills' design puts the action roughly in 1950s Italy, allowing for some very charming musical interludes composed by Michael Bruce, and contributing to the playful atmosphere. When the RSC revived the similarly-neglected Titus Andronicus last year, it revealed the play as a much more crowd-pleasing piece of theatre than its obscurity might suggest. The Two Gentlemen of Verona doesn't prove quite as much of a neglected classic here - some of the wordplay is painfully laboured - but it's a charming production that doesn't pretend the play is flawless. And if the moral situation the characters are left in is problematic, there's something satisfying to the simplicity of the plot that gets them there.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 4th of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; and from the 7th to the 11th of October at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.