BBC Complete Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

Perhaps the most rewarding element of digging into BBC’s Complete Shakespeare series is getting the chance to see plays performed that are universally neglected on stage and in film. Two Gentlemen of Verona is one such play, as it is often considered one of Shakespeare’s first plays, if not THE first, and most critics agree that it shows a young playwright who has merely opened the vein on the themes that he will spend much of his dramatic career tackling in much more mature, sophisticated efforts. There’s little denying that the play is rough around the edges, but like with so many early works of monumental geniuses it still has moments and elements of brilliance that make it a worthwhile experience, even if it’s not on the level of their late masterpieces.

The title itself refers to Proteus (Tyler Butterworth) and Valentine (John Hudson), two young men who have grown up together in Verona. Proteus is devoted to love, and the object of his affections is the beautiful Julia (Tessa Peake-Jones), while Valentine is more concerned with chivalry and has left to seek his fame and fortune. Eventually, Proteus’ father sends him off as well, and both Valentine and Proteus reunite in Milan. There, Valentine has fallen in loe too with Sylvia (Joanne Pearce), who is also being wooed by Thurio (David Collings). Upon Proteus’ arrival, he too falls for Sylvia, and is even willing to leave Julia for her, as well as beguile his best friend to get her love. Meanwhile, Speed (Nicholas Kaby) and Launce (tony Haygarth) play the “clown” servants, who provide the majority of the comic relief.

Much like in Romeo & Juliet, besides comic relief, the clowns also serve to provide a pragmatic, cynical commentary on the blinding fantasies of love. Many critics think that Launce and his dog, Crab, (perhaps the most famous non-speaking part in all Shakespeare), steal the play with their rustic wit and honesty. One of the comedic highlights of the play features Launce reading a list of his mistress’ strengths and faults, which transforms the elevated romanticism of Proteus and Valentine, who have been busy exalting the perfections of their loves, into a simple problem of arithmetic. He ultimately decides that his mistress “has more hair than wits, more faults than hairs, but more wealth than faults”, and the last conceit trumps all other concerns.

This production is especially pristine with a thoroughly solid cast and a lovely art design. While the cast features no real stand-outs, the actors’ consistency provides a much needed balance to the roles. John Hudson is a dignified Valentine, while Tyler Butterworth does what he can to lend some sympathy to the idiot that is Proteus; his natural good looks probably help to make him a sympathetic protagonist. Nicholas Kaby is perhaps too young and inexperienced to play Speed, and he does come off as a bit precocious, but the lightness of the role saves him from truly letting the production down. Tony Haygarth probably has it easy playing the lovable Launce, and it’s certainly a role that will works as long as an actor doesn’t mess it up, and he certainly does it (Bella as the dog, Crab, deserves mention too).

But it’s probably the women that, like in BBC’s Comedy of Errors production, shine the brightest. Tessa Peake-Jones is a perfect, enchanting Julia. She’s magically charming with her handmaid, Lucetta (Hetta Charnley), in one of play’s earliest scenes. But it’s really her performance once she’s discovered Proteus’ infidelity that transforms the play into a near-tragedy. Especially moving is her performance in Act VI, Scene II that provides the emotional weight to the production, as she stands outside Sylvia’s window, disguised as a male page, listening to Proteus sing for Sylvia. One mark of great Shakespeare productions is that they bring out facets of the play one hadn’t considered, and Tessa’s Julia made me look at Two Gentlemen as a decidedly feminist—or, at least, anti-masculine—play.

Barbara Gosnold’s elegant production design is likewise one of the best in the series. Verona is designed with faux-marble arches and railings, which are overgrown with vines and flowers, while the square in Milan appears as if it’s a decorative Athenian garden. Even the forest scenes, while utterly artificial, lend a potent atmosphere to the drama. In fact, it’s that atmosphere that’s the real key to the designs as they serve to enhance the romanticism of the play, yet the slight sterility in the lighting also serves to highlight the alternative, more cynical approach to love and romance over friendship. Don Taylor’s direction, in contrast, does occasionally stumble to find focus in the low lighting, but these infrequent slips certainly don’t detract from what is, overall, a stellar production.

It’s always a bit difficult rating Shakespeare productions because a critic should be asked to not consider the scripted aspect of it, at least in the respect that the focus should be on what the production does with the text, rather than the quality of the text as a starting point. If one places too much emphasis on the text then the best productions of Shakespeare’s worst plays could never best the worst productions of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. In that sense, I think it’s easier to say that Two Gentlemen of Verona is a lackluster play, but that this is a near-perfect production. That’s not to say that a better one couldn’t be done, but unless someone wanted to invest in turning it into a feature film (which is an unlikely scenario), then it’s hard to imagine something better being produced.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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