Alfred Hickling recently reminisced in the Guardian about the Tom Stoppard screenplay for Shakespeare in Love (and/or the Lee Hall adaptation for the stage), where the fledgling Will receives some poignant guidance from the world-wearier Henslowe: ‘Comedy. That’s what they want. Love and a bit with a dog.’ And sure enough, as night follows day, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona that is what you get, as it is written on the side of the tin. This is one of Shakespeare’s initial plays; some say it is the earliest. It is a dabbling tale of friendship, love, duplicity and friendship re-found. It is a play about two very immature men, quilled by an immature Shakespeare. It isn’t one of his sturdiest plots, although there are early signs of repetitive themes and dramatic stratagems – oh and a dog. Don’t forget the dog.
Nutshell narrative; Valentine (Jason Green) goes to Milan. Proteus (Brian Woolton), his friend, stays to woo Julia (Kiera Taylor). Proteus’s father compels him to go with Valentine. Julia dresses as a boy and follows. Valentine falls for Sylvia (Olivia Israel) and they plan to steal away. Her father (Lee Tilson) wants her to marry Thurio (Mike Bicknell). Proteus falls for Sylvia and betrays his best friend. Mayhem ensues, but everything is kind of all right in the end. Flimsy in structure and two-dimensional in character, it was an easy story to follow, yet clearly laying the groundwork for what was to come.
Star of the show is Bob Nother’s set: a clever construction built around a revolving centre section, flanked by town house to one side and tavern to the other, both on two levels. Scene changes are accompanied by period music provided by Courtlye Musik, four able musicians whose authentic detail enhance the production. However, these scene changes were often drawn-out affairs, punctuated by scene-establishing action that was pleasant at first but became overtly tedious and slowed the pace of an already sluggish first half.
As the play progresses what becomes evident is an inhibiting gulf of experience within the cast. Jason Green and Brian Woolton, as seasoned stalwarts, give assured performances as the eponymous gentlemen, whereas Kiera Taylor and Olivia Israel’s execution is spirited without ever feeling comprehensive; long gazes into the mid-distance from upstairs windows typified this. Lee Tilson and Chaz Davenport (Launce) present with a sense of ease which is becoming of their proficiency, while less experienced members rally round, playing the limiting Victorian construct of Shakespearean acting rather than playing characters. This is particularly evident in the delivery of the comedy. All too often it is forced, occasionally contrived and habitually clunky. The problematic end is papered over, probably the easiest way of dealing with it, but still unsatisfactory: Sylvia placed stage right as the man she loves makes concord with her would-be rapist.
As a play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona wasn’t the Bard’s finest hour and, with the best will in the world and no matter how hard you squint, it’s difficult to turn it into something it isn’t. With frail plot and characters it’s a flirtation with the intricacies of a playwright developing his craft.