Saturday, 2 June 2018

Theatre review: The Two Noble Kinsmen (Shakespeare's Globe)

A minor way in which Michelle Terry has already differed from her predecessors at the Globe is that this is the first summer season at the venue not to have an official overall theme - just how well past seasons ever really tied in to those themes is a different story. It's been no secret though that there's a very low-key connection between four of this year's shows, and that's "Emilia," a name that crops up in a number of Shakespeare's plays. The theme will culminate in a new play about the woman they may or may not have all been named after, but the first Emilia on stage this summer is the one who inadvertently puts a rift between The Two Noble Kinsmen. Fletcher and Shakespeare's last play together tells a story taken from Chaucer's Knight's Tale, a pretty thin story that's padded out in a way that leaves us with a messy, but in the right hands entertaining, few hours.

It's also, as Barrie Rutter's production makes abundantly clear, a play with a hell of a lot of references to Morris dancing for a story that's meant to take place in ancient Greece.

The time and place is in fact the same royal wedding that A Midsummer Night's Dream concludes with, though Theseus (Jude Akuwudike) and Hippolyta (Moyo Akandé) have to put off their nuptials this time to go to war with Creon who, being Creon, has been going around refusing to bury a bunch of dead people. The Athenians win and among their spoils are two of Creon's nephews: Palamon (Paul Stocker) and Arcite (Bryan Dick) fought with their uncle only out of family loyalty and disagreed with his desecration of the bodies, so Theseus spares their lives and puts them in jail. There the cousins swear that nothing will get in the way of their lifelong friendship, with such vehemence that it's obvious someone or something will come along within seconds to do just that.

From their cell they can see a garden where Hippolyta's sister Emilia (Ellora Torchia) likes to walk, and they both instantly fall for her. When through various means they both end up free again they compete for her hand and Emilia is left with an impossible choice: To marry one and allow the other to be executed, as they'll never agree to end their feud if they're both left alive. So we're firmly in the realm of the tragicomic late romances, although for the most part this production plays up the lighter elements more - the regular breaking into Morris dancing (Ewan Wardrop returning to the Globe as choreographer rather than actor this time, to music by Eliza Carthy) and a major clog dancing interlude helping with this.

But the bittersweet elements of the story are also embraced; Torchia brings pathos to Emilia's unwanted power over the kinsmen's life and death, and there's no missing the irony in her position in the fact that she has a long speech early on essentially coming out as a lesbian, so her being placed in the position of prize to be fought over by two men is even more undesirable (a bit more glossed-over is the suggestion that Theseus' relationship with Matt Henry's Pirithous may also be more than a bromance.)

Rutter's production also gives a lot of weight to the subplot about the Jailer's Daughter (Francesca Mills,) who frees Palamon when she falls in love with him, and goes mad when he doesn't return her affections. Mills holds onto the tragedy of the character but also keeps some of the loved-up enthusiasm she started off with, turning a character the writers couldn't be arsed giving a name to into the emotional heart of the show (while Palamon and Arcite's feud is often funny, they're not really that easy to care about.) Of course, the kind of mishaps she goes through - especially getting shanghaied into a Morris troupe then dumped when the dance is over - are so weird that they're ripe to be played for ridicule even as you empathise with her. Her subplot fizzles out disappointingly, but that's Fletcher and Shakespeare's fault, not the production's.

With Jessica Worrall covering the stage in moss (so at least some shows this season will have something resembling a design budget) as well as all that Morris dancing this is very much an English pastoral story despite its nominal setting. It means that the attempts to bulk up a flimsy story come off endearingly bonkers rather than too frustrating, and a brisk, presumably heavily edited (it's hard to tell, it's not like I've seen the play much) production stops things getting bogged down. And once again The Two Noble Kinsmen proves that the Shakespearean obscurities can be among the most rewarding experiences, the creatives treating the play as something new to be discovered, rather than sitting back and hoping a beloved classic will work its magic on its own.

The Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 30th of June at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Nobby Clark.

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