Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Radio review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

The Two Gentlemen of Verona consist of one of Shakespeare's douchiest romantic leads in Proteus (Blake Ritson,) and one of the thickest in Valentine (Nikesh Patel,) who leaves Verona to seek his fortune in Milan, falling in love once there with the Duke's daughter Silvia (Kate Phillips.) Proteus eventually follows him there and falls for her himself; despite having sworn love to Julia (Lyndsey Marshal) back at home, and despite Valentine supposedly being his best friend, he immediately starts plotting to sabotage the relationship and steal Silvia for himself. Originally produced for BBC Radio 3 in 2019 and now available on BBC Sounds' Shakespeare Sessions, this version adapted by Sara Davies and directed by Celia de Wolff is a companion to the production of The Two Noble Kinsmen I listened to a few weeks ago, using the same cast and production team.

The recording was made on location in the Sussex countryside, ostensibly to capture some of the feel of an al fresco performance by touring players, although since it's impossible to tell the difference between birdsong added as sound effects and that caught by the mics as the actors performed, I'm not sure that really comes across. Otherwise though I thought this was one of the more successful radio adaptations I've listened to; as I've said before, for me these are mostly a "better than nothing" option while I wait for the live versions to return, with the stripped-back approach exposing problems that are easier to get around when you have visuals to distract the audience with. But these couple of hours have a lot of enjoyable scenes in there.

Gentlemen of course hails from the other end of Shakespeare's career than Kinsmen and is considered a solo-authored one, so it's a pretty straightforward early romantic comedy without too many complications and subplots, toying with themes the playwright would explore in more complex ways later. The smart-arsed wordplay between the two servants (Ray Fearon and Sam Dale) comes across as fun (if smug,) Oliver Chris gets another hapless romantic fool to cameo with, and Patel really brings out how comically dim the romantic lead is (honestly the man can't get his head round Silvia's gag of making him write a love letter to himself even after he's had it repeatedly explained to him in some detail, and then walks straight into the Duke's trap to reveal his plans to him with grinning enthusiasm.) The surreally dark comedy of the bandits in the woods is also mined, as everyone treats them as harmless Merry Men with only a few minor fatal stabbings to their name.

Needs more dog, of course - radio has to be one of the only ways The Two Gentlemen of Verona won't get completely stolen by a canine performer, as it's pretty impossible to bring the play's most notorious character to audio: Given that the whole gag is how Crab just stands there doing nothing, you can't even bring him to life with barking, a bit of panting and low whimpering is all we get. For that reason alone this can never replace the real experience of this play, but as radio adaptations go I thought this was one of The Shakespeare Sessions' stronger ones.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare is available on BBC Sounds.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

Image credit: BBC.

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