Two Noble Kinsmen

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Shakespeare’s Globe

The_Two_Noble_Kinsmen_by_John_Fletcher_William_Shakespeare_1634

The Two Noble Kinsmen has a plot ripped from the Middle Ages* which is really quite challenging to stomach in the modern world – and luckily this production does not attempt to force us to do so. What we have instead is exactly the kind of frolicsome action that the Globe really excels at – the audience had a blast and I reckon the cast did too…

A cursory explanation of the plot. The Two Noble Kinsmen are Arcite** and Palamon, from Thebes. Via a plotline involving three queens who petition to be able to bury their dead husbands and the offscreen tyranny of Creon***, the two kinsmen come to be captured by Theseus, the King of Athens****. While in jail, the two guys see, and instantly fall in love with, Emilia, Theseus’ sister. Palamon saw her first. This is apparently important. Both men get free. Arcite is banished, takes part in some games, and then becomes a servant to Emilia. Palamon is freed by the jailer’s daughter who is in love him (and has her own sub-plot but let’s not). The two men meet, agree to fight for the girl (who get precisely zero say in this, although to be fair she is given the chance but is somehow unable to choose between them). Both men pray to different deities to get what they want and… Well, I won’t spoil the ending, but somehow it all gets resolved. Sort of.

 

A lot of the action feels both insanely melodramatic and a little bit off to modern sensibilities, and the direction very sensibly allowed for the cast to feel it, but not too much. A case in point – coming back to the jailer’s daughter’s sub-plot. Basically she goes mad with love for Palamon, gets suckered into taking part in a dance for King Theseus (which – again, parallels with A Midsummer Night’s Dream – do any Athenian artisans actually do any work or do they spend all day practising in case the king comes by? And how does Theseus get anything done if any time he walks out his front door people start spontaneously acting or dancing at him?), and then is seen by a doctor whose prescribed treatment is for her pre-existing suitor to pretend to be Palamon to relieve her unrequited love. This is, objectively, very silly indeed – and if the cast had either taken it too seriously, or not seriously enough, we would all have been sunk. Instead we had very finely judged turns from Francesca Mills as the jailer’s daughter – exuberant, energetic, engaging (she gave a wonderful sly thumbs-up when someone in the audience cheered at her), Andy Cryer as her concerned father, particularly in the interplay with Sue Devaney’s very liberal-minded Doctor, and Jon Trenchard’s gentle Wooer.

Matt Henry – who shone so brightly in Kinky Boots – was a little underused in this. He seemed to have been lumbered slightly with role of “all the characters were we needed to keep at least one line” – officially named Pirithous*****. He had excellent chemistry with Ellora Torchia’s Emilia – I kept on forgetting I was meant to be rooting for Arcite (or Palamon) – but never really got to show us what he’s made of. He did, I think, bust some moves in amongst the groundlings at the end – but alas I wasn’t groundling…

The music (by Eliza Carthy) was a real stand-out treat – wonderful toe-tapping folk tunes (especially for Gentles All at the end) which fit perfectly the vibe of the piece and held the attention (very necessary – as a late play you could tell this had been written to include a lot of potential masque-ness, and rather less action). Running alongside the music, the dancing had a very morrisy feel******, and there were some stunning morris outfits of the rag coat variety – as wonderfully shown off by Jos Vantyler’s scene-stealing schoolmaster. In fact all the costumes were excellent, from Arcite and Palamon’s not-quite-complementary, not-quite-clashing yellow and blue through an array of incredible sculptural hairdos which really struck – not least because how often does someone manage to accurately portray character in hair?

The best hairdos belonged to three queens who set the action in motion – Sue Devaney, Melissa James and Kat Rose-Martin. They seemed to me be an interesting courtly counterpart to Macbeth’s witches (their scenes were amongst the ones written by Shakespeare, and I think you could tell) in terms of their role starting the plot, and in their characterisation as three linked but individual women. Moyo Akandé and Jude Akuwudike as Hippolyta and Theseus were a very believable, relatable married couple, and with a strong bond with Ellora Torchia. Her Emilia came across as honourable and intelligent, if a little too prone to hand-wringing rather than taking action – not the actress’s fault, but having just seen her as Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well I’ll admit I was urging her to stop her bemoaning her fate and start changing it.

I think one of the problems was Emilia really didn’t seem to be in love with either Arcite or Palamon. She spends a lot more time (in-text but mostly off-stage) with Arcite, who becomes her servant, but this doesn’t seem to give him any advantage in her favour – her inability to choose between the two felt like a real lack of preference rather than some maidenly modesty, and the most genuine affection I felt she showed was when talking about her best friend who died when they were children. I’ll admit I had a preference for Bryan Dick’s Arcite – textually, because he wins his freedom himself and doesn’t leave a poor girl wandering round the woods like Paul Stocker’s Palamon does, stylistically because he lacked the (very entertaining) petulance of the latter, and seemed to demonstrate more love for his kinsmen (and a maybe more realistic affection for Emilia). Best of all, though, was when they were both onstage – whoever wrote their bickering had definitely observed siblings at each other’s throats. The scene in the jail/wagon was brilliant, and at one point they fought with spears which was a pretty unexpectedly ancient Greek (and deeply thrilling) departure from sword-fighting…

I am not sure I could really tell you what this play is about – the synopsis describes it as “Fletcher and Shakespeare examine love in all its fluid and complex forms” which feels suspiciously like the Globe didn’t really know either. But I can tell you what it is – and that is a rollicking good time…


* Literally – it is based on The Knight’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That in turn is based on a 14th Century Italian epic poem, so it’s basically medieval turtles all the way down…

** Pronounced as our-kite – which I found a little offputtingly non-Greek – mentally, I had been going with something more like our-city.

*** A nice, consistent characterisation with Antigone on the matter of funerary rites.

**** Yes the same one as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – although since he and Hippolyta are married in this one, it must be the sequel.

***** My god the naming is all over the shop is in this play. So there’s Theseus and his sister Emilia (commonly shortened to Emily – very Ancient Greek I DON’T THINK), a character who is just credited as “Wooer”, a school teacher who is named in the play as Master Gerald (again, very Greek) and then the ‘Pirithous’s and ‘Arcite’s, which leave you wondering who exactly came up with all this and why they didn’t actually know any Greek names.

****** I think it’s pretty brave giving your entire cast big wooden sticks for the jig at the end – and then adding some quite complex turn-and-hit choreography to it!

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