Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Series 6 Episode 4)

First broadcast 27th December 1983

John Hudson and Tyler Butterworth: Two regular Veronese guys just shooting the breeze

Cast: Tyler Butterworth (Proteus), John Hudson (Valentine), Tessa Peake-Jones (Julia), Joanne Pearce (Silvia), Paul Daneman (Duke of Milan), Tony Haygarth (Launce), David Collings (Thurio), Nicholas Kaby (Speed), Hetta Charnley (Lucetta), Michael Byrne (Antonio), John Woodnutt (Panthino), Frank Barrie (Sir Eglamore)

Director: Don Taylor

The BBC series moves into the home straight (just six left after this one!) and, as we head into the final episodes, it becomes clear just how haphazard a lot of the planning around the series was. Not only are the remaining plays (with the exception of Much Ado About Nothing and possibly Coriolanus) a bizarre collection of minnows, the runts of the Shakespeare litter assembled into a bargain bucket, but this ramshackle transmission order in no way reflects the composition order of the plays itself. As we head into many of the earlier or weaker (or both) works, there is no sense of Shakespeare’s skills developing and building on top of each other – more a sense of completeness for completeness’ sake, like a kid tracking down the last few stickers for a Panini Football Album.

This feeling is particularly clear in Two Gentlemen of Verona, almost certainly (by critical consensus) one of the first plays written by Shakespeare. As such, it’s packed with signposts for future Shakespearean developments and ideas that would be explored in greater depth in future plays. This could have been built into the plans for the series, perhaps allowing viewers to see more of the contrasts. However, it’s not the case, so this is more of an easter egg for those in the know.

As for those early ideas – where to begin? Julia herself combines elements of Rosalind and Helena (AYLI and All’s Well), both her in her plotline and personality. Her dissing of potential suitors with Lucetta has much in common with Portia and Nerissa in Merchant. Her role, disguised as a boy, to pass messages from the man she loves to the woman he loves has more than an air of Viola. Proteus is an embryonic Iachimo from Cymbeline and Bertram from All’s Well. Our lovers all end up swopping each other in a forest a la Dream. Launce foreshadows a range of clowns to come from Touchstone to Feste. The Duke of Milan is another reasonable authority figure. A Friar called Laurence is name checked. Eglamour is like some distant cousin of Aguecheek and Falstaff. Large chunks of the plot (lovers separated, authority figures coming between true love etc.) would be recycled throughout both drama and comedy in Shakespeare’s work.

So what about this production itself? Well again, like Comedy of Errors, it’s a rather mixed bag: a combination of good ideas, misfires and some stodgy acting. Anyway, let’s focus on the positives first. Don Taylor does a rich and intelligent job of directing this play. Taylor decided to film long takes with multiple cameras, editing between the different shots to tell the story visually. This actually works rather well, getting a good balance between the Jonathan Miller style (single takes, tracking shots for single shots) and the Jack Gold (and others) style of a more traditional master shot/reaction shot style. Taylor wanted to allow the actors to perform “in the moment” and to have the opportunity to grow and develop within the scene, which he felt would be harder to achieve without allowing the actors to just go for it as they would in the theatre or rehearsal room. This works very well with many of the actors in the performance, particularly Tessa Peake-Jones (of whom more later).

The setting of the play is also an interesting combination of the realistic and the more stylistic. Verona (our original location) is a logical, consistent location – reminiscent of many of the courtly sets we’ve seen in previous comedies, with its own clear geography. Milan, however, is a far more stylistic place, an almost bizarre world where the entire court is a perfect stereotypical romantic image. This works quite well for the increasingly extreme and bizarre actions of the play, but is perhaps a little bit too much for a modern viewer. Silvia cannot enter without being covered in confetti. Two romantic young men strike poses in the background of scenes (wait in vain for them to become part of the plot). Some rather creepy painted cherubs run around throughout many of the scenes. In a slightly heavy-handed touch two statues are entitled “Amour” (struck by an arrow) and “Fidelity” (not). Prefiguring what is about to happen? Not half. What does work well is that, with the arrival of the treacherous Proteus, a windy storm sweeps through this Eden-like courtyard – serpent in paradise anyone? However this all works fairly well (despite looking a little odd) and means that we get a sense of why Valentine and Proteus get so swept up in romantic feelings the instant they arrive in Milan. How could they not with all these prompts around them?

Taylor also uses music very well in this production – perhaps better than many of the other productions. In Verona, a minstrel plays poems by Shakespeare and his contemporaries as a series of songs: this works well, both as something for the cast to interact with and also to smooth the transition between scenes. This also carries across quite nicely to Milan, where the music complements the stylistic world that Taylor has created. Taylor also starts the play with a nice little prologue of Julia being wooed by Sir Eglamore and another (random) character (who never appears again). It’s fairly inconsequential but adds context to why Julia pretends not to love Proteus and adds some visual interest as Eglamore rolls out a parchment of his lineage and the other courtier pours money across the floor from some sort of bird house (especially as this allows some witty screen images of this mess being cleaned up in the next scene).

The setting, however, does get a little odd in the forest in the final scenes. For some reason, the forest is turned into a series of metallic columns, wrapped in tinsel and leaves, their tops stretching past the camera lens, with a bridge like platform throughout. This looks like what it sounds like. The cast apparently even described it as “Christmas in Selfridges”. Now I’m all for impressionism over realism in these things – but within a consistent idea. Does this post-industrial forest match up in anyway with the romantic world of Milan? Not at all. Is there anything else in the production that even remotely ties in with that? Nope. Does it look, for want of a better word, a bit crap? Yes it does.

Having said all that, there is quite an affectionate warmth in the production for the characters and the story. By and large, the shades of gray are avoided, and even the bad characters like Proteus aren’t really that bad – he’s more misguided. The comic characters actually come across fairly well. In particular, Taylor draws a very good performance from young Nicholas Kaby as an energetic and engaging Speed, full of wit and banter with a skilful precision in piercing the pretensions of his masters. Similarly Launce is brought to life extremely well by Tony Haygarth, who portrays what could be a dullard with a real sensitivity and gentle wit – and with a truly adorable dog I’ve got to say. Haygarth does a fantastic job with the long monologues of Launce (Taylor wisely I think doesn’t play these as comic set pieces, or encourage any business from the dog), giving Launce a slightly world weary nature, someone who is far more plugged into the stupidity and vanity of the world than many others in the play. Taylor also directs these moments with a real simplicity – and recognises I think that high energy comedy didn’t work very well in the aesthetic of this series.

The best performance of the lot however is Tessa Peake-Jones as Julia. It helps of course that she has the most interesting character in the play, and certainly the most complex, but Peake-Jones mines this proto-Rosalind/Helena for all the depth she can, finding a great deal of emotional truth in the role. Her tearful, raw reaction to witnessing Proteus woo Silvia is genuinely quite moving. At the other end of the scale, her early conversation with Lucetta has a real lightness and affection behind it, and her reaction to receiving (then ripping, then trying to gather up the pieces of) Proteus’ love letter is quite sweet – she playfully plays a harpsichord to try and distract Lucetta from her interest in it before falling on the letter with a passionate longing when left alone. Similarly you really feel her pain and anger when she arrives in Milan dressed as a boy – and the mixed feelings she has towards Silvia, a woman she has much in common with. It’s a very well thought out, heartfelt performance that really grows on you as the play progresses.

It’s unfortunate that this isn’t matched by the other three main members of the cast. Surprisingly, in amongst all this invention and confident handling of the play, the acting styles of Tyler Butterworth, John Hudson and Joanne Pearce all come across as at best old fashioned, and at worst disengaged and dully traditional. All three go for a very poetic, breathy reading of the text, where youth and inexperience are conveyed by delivering many lines with a high pitch and eagerness. What this fails to do, however, is deliver any real sense of character or personality in these people, instead making them into rather distant figures strangely devoid of passion despite the actions they are involved in.

Butterworth’s Proteus never for one second convinces either as a conniving opportunist or as a man so wrapped up in a sudden passion that he sadly feels the need to take on a number of terrible actions. John Hudson’s Valentine is a dull figure, despite some efforts to add some moments of comic timing to him (such as his reaction when the Duke reveals the rope ladder beneath his cloak with which he intends to steal away Silvia) – but Hudson adds no sense of energy to it. Scenes involving him and Joanne Pearce are terribly dull, with both actors concentrating so heavily on getting the beauty of the language across that they forget to really add in any performing. Joanne Pearce continues where she left off from Comedy of Errors with a flat performance.

It’s these lead characters that, in the end, undermine the production. Despite all the efforts of some in the cast – and I want to mention as well Paul Daneman who gives a terrific performance as a Duke of Milan who is clearly savvy to Proteus from the start – the lead characters (sketchily drawn on paper) are simply not particularly engaging or interesting. I can see how they could be – there’s more than enough plot here – and I feel like there should be a sharp, active, vital quality to the performances – these guys are young, a bit dumb and horny as hell – but you don’t get any sense of that at all in the production. It’s a completely sex-free production, which is bizarre since virtually every single scene is about love or lust or some combination of the two.

Which is a shame as this is a solid enough production with a good selection of ideas and concepts behind it, and it generally has a lot of charm. What I liked about it is that Don Taylor clearly has an understanding of what the play is about, and where it sits in the cannon of Shakespeare’s work. Most of the design ideas effectively service the plot and allow us to understand the tone of each scene and the mood of the production. Yes, some of these design ideas don’t work, and the lead actors are weak – but the production effectively evokes a world, and creates a mood of warmth and lightness that makes it enjoyable.

Despite some key flaws, this is actually a rather engaging production. It’s very hard not to get wrapped up in the story, and to enjoy the events of the show – particularly with Peake-Jones’ performance, which is the true stand out of the show. There are also some well-done performances from the supporting cast, in particular Daneman, Kaby and Haygarth. The design ideas by and large work quite well (with some key flaws) and there are plenty of enjoyable moments. Where the production fails however is in the three other leads, who fail to bring any real emotion, passion or interest to their characters, which weakens the production as it detracts heavily from the audience’s interest in their plot. This doesn’t completely undermine the production, but it is a real shame that better performances (or actors) couldn’t have been found for the leads of this otherwise interesting and quite likeable production.

NEXT TIME: Alan Howard lays into those pesky commoners in Coriolanus

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