The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written between 1589 and 1593, is believed to have been Shakespeare’s first play – and, boy, does it show. It didn’t make much of an impression when first performed, and rare revivals in recent times have generally not been very well-received.

Last week we saw the Liverpool Everyman and Shakespeare’s Globe co-production which did a decent job of creating an entertaining and thought-provoking evening’s entertainment – but only by setting the action in 1966, hacking the text, and subverting Shakespeare’s happy-ever-after ending which leaves a modern audience feeling decidedly nauseous. It’s certainly the first time that I have come away from a Shakespeare production feeling that my main criticism of the play would be the text!

The story is briefly told: two young men, two young women, two towns, a wrathful Duke, a dog called Crab, and a bunch of forest-dwelling outlaws. There are familiar tropes which Shakespeare would develop to much more sophisticated effect in future comedies: a cross-dressing heroine (who refuses to wear a codpiece), lovers’ letters that go astray, love songs played beneath window of the one whose love is sought (and a rope ladder for elopement), banishment from the city, revelation and restitution in the forest.

The two towns are Verona and Milan, and director Nick Bagnall has boldly decided to set this production in 1966, and make Verona the stuffy town where squares listen to stuff like Ken Dodd, Jim Reeves and Frank Sinatra (all big hits in ’66) while Milan, to which our hero Valentine hies to seek his fortune is a place of swinging hipsters, discos, the tone set by the bright and poppy ‘Milano’ played as Valentine enters the city.

Stage set on tour: bright, poptastic Milan
Stage set on tour: bright, poptastic Milan

The production features a stage set in vivid psychedelic colours (by designer Katie Sykes) and original music (by James Fortune) played by actors whose musical skills encompass everything from pop and soul ballads to the psychedelic rock of the Outlaws in the forest, re-imagined as a hippie band. The letters that are constantly being exchanged here become 45 rpm singles, played on a Dansette record player.

The music serves to mark the change from sedate Verona to Milan, a place for the young and free where young men like Valentine have a fair chance of making their fortune and falling in love – which Valentine promptly does, though the young lady  Silvia is the daughter of the Duke who intends to marry her off to the lacklustre Thurio.

Meanwhile, our other gent, Proteus, has remained in Verona to be with his beloved Julia. However, urged on by his father, he too leaves for Milan, accompanied by his servant Launce and Launce’s dog Crab. Soon it becomes evident that Shakespeare is setting up a debate (one that was very much to the fore in his day) about which is the most noble: friendship between males, or love between a man and a woman? At the play’s conclusion, Shakespeare comes down firmly in favour of male friendship.

Before we reach that point, however, there’s a lorra laughs and much music (some drawing on Shakespeare’s text, including ‘Who is Silvia?’ later set to music by Schubert, but here transformed into a soul ballad. Some of the biggest laughs are induced by Crab, the dog to which Launce has been devoted since, as a puppy, he was ‘one that I saved from drowning, when three or four of his blind brothers and sisters went to it’. Since then, he has been nothing but trouble:

Nay, I’ll be sworn, I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath stolen, otherwise he had been executed; I have stood on the pillory for geese he hath killed, otherwise he had suffered for’t.

Crab disgraces himself (off-stage) by urinating on the beautiful Silvia, so that Launce berates him:

Did not I bid thee still mark me and do as I do? When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale?

As usual in Shakespeare’s comedies, there is love, miscommunication and betrayal – all conveyed here at full tilt by a cast who exude with high octane energy. Proteus arrives in Milan and promptly betrays both Julia (who has followed him, disguised as a man) and his friend Valentine by falling in love with Silvia. Worse, he betrays his friend’s wooing of Silvia to the Duke, who promptly banishes Valentine from the city.

Guy Hughes as Valentine and Dharmesh Patel as Proteus
Guy Hughes as Valentine and Dharmesh Patel as Proteus

Guy Hughes as Valentine and Aruhan Galieva as Silvia give particularly strong performances, though Dharmesh Patel as Proteus doesn’t convince half as much: a guy who is stabbing his best mate in the back and attempting to seduce his girl has got to be played as more of a bastard – particularly so, given what is coming in the final scene.

However, no amount of energetic acting can disguise the fact that the reason why The Two Gentlemen does not light up soul in the same way as Shakespeare’s later comedies is that here the characters are one-dimensional, the text giving no sense that any of them have an inner life.

But there’s a deeper problem for modern audiences and directors: the controversial ending which is distasteful, glossing over as it does sexual assault and female submission. Which is why, in this production, it was changed. ‘To a modern audience, that’s just not on,’ director Nick Bagnall puts it in the programme.

In the final scene, when the four lovers meet in the forest and all is revealed, Proteus beats and attempts to rape Silvia while his once-beloved Julia looks on aghast. Even worse, moments later, all is brought to a happy conclusion, with Valentine forgiving Proteus for betraying him, and – overlooking the brutality Proteus has just inflicted on the woman he claimed to love – offers Silvia to his friend.

In the Wikipedia entry for this play it is noted that introducing the 2004 edition for the Arden Shakespeare, William Carroll argues that Valentine’s action, in giving Silvia to Proteus, is a perfectly logical one in terms of the notions of friendship which were prevalent at the time:

The idealisation of male friendship as superior to male-female love (which was considered not romantic or compassionate but merely lustful, hence inferior) performs a project of cultural nostalgia, a stepping back from potentially more threatening social arrangements to a world of order, a world based on a ‘gift’ economy of personal relations among male social equals rather than one based on a newer, less stable economy of emotional and economic risk. The offer of the woman from one male friend to another would therefore be the highest expression of friendship from one point of view, a low point of psycho-sexual regression from another.

Carroll argues that such Valentine’s ‘gift’, as unacceptable as it is to modern eyes, is perfectly understandable when one considers the cultural and social milieu of the play itself.

But Nick Bagnall does not let Shakespeare off so lightly: the attempted rape of Silvia was done powerfully, and – in a subversion of the text’s happy resolution as Proteus and Valentine go off arm in arm as if nothing has happened – the two women don’t just shrug off their demeaning and degradation by the men, but remain, traumatised and huddled together for support, at centre stage.

This reading makes Silvia and Julia’s love for each other is all that can be truly salvaged at the close of the play – a love that is superior to that of the men. Alone at the end, Silvia and Julia sing together: ‘Loneliness … a life of loneliness ahead for me.’

As the lights went up, the director played us out with James Brown’s impassioned ‘It’s a Man’s, Man’s World’. Exactly.

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