12 year old girl sitting in front of me, “Shakespeare’s weird!”
Indeed child, it is. My last night in Stratford-upon-Avon I saw a production of Two Noble Kinsmen in the Swan theatre. The Swan opened 30 years ago with this show as a part of their original season, so they brought it back to honour the past. I feel bad because I really wanted to enjoy this production, but there were too many concepts forced upon one already strange play.
This play was about sex and sexuality. Deciding to make a more definite relationship between Emilia and her kinswoman was a fine choice, but it only fit in certain parts of the plot. They tried to bring it back up as a pathetic reminder of their poor choice, but it never comfortably fit in most of the plot. In fact I felt distracted by this new subplot instead of focusing on the already confusing story line. There was a most debaucherous triangular relationship between Duke Theseus, Hippolyta, and his “friend” Pirithous. Again, Hippolyta’s jealousy of Pirithous was defended in the text, as was Theseus’s claims of love towards Pirithous. Again, yes, it worked but not in a satisfactory way. I’m not quite sure what I needed as an audience member to make this scenario somewhat “satisfactory,” but it was all a little too obvious for me. I wanted the subtle jealously to be revealed in the words, looks, and glances, rather than bumping into each other like high school enemies. This desired subtlety was well played between the two kinsmen. There were several moments of possible embrace between the two, but nothing ever happened (above hugging). It kept the tension high between them, and the audience wanted to keep watching in order to see if they ever did kiss or embrace. Although Palamon and Arcite may speak their love, it need not be shown if not to further distract from the story.
The suitor to the Jailer’s Daughter is promised to her before her madness, so he perseveres to gain her love by pretending to be Palamon and keeping with her every day. The actor did a very nice job, his pity and sadness was a refreshing whiff of genuine in a gilded performance. This play is supposedly trying to make fun of the medieval code of chivalry, but there were too many moments of profound acting (actually trying to connect to the text and the audience) for it to pass as a joke.
Emilia never gave Arcite (pronounced Ar-kite) a hopeful glance until after intermission, when he has already spent (assumed) months in the court. It’s hard to believe that you love somebody when you never acknowledge their existence. Now, I must cite the program in order to help their plea. One of the articles in the program commended Emilia for her chaste actions towards both suitors, as to not smear her reputation by seeming a flirt or a tease. As an audience member it just would’ve been nice to see a little more affection or personalized attention. The program also wrote about the ancient medical beliefs of female hysteria, which they tried to include for the Jailer’s Daughter. The Jailer’s Daughter was fine, there was nothing surprising or inspiring in her choices or performance. I like the choice to link female hysteria to her, because that’s definitely what she is “diagnosed” with by the doctor. Maybe I’m expecting too much drama, but her descent into madness was pretty tortoise-like. The character is already very similar to Ophelia in Hamlet, so I wanted her to make choices that would separate the two. Arcite and Palamon are both very good, but Palamon’s ability to communicate with the audience was clearer. Palamon’s speeches seem to move through his body, rather than stay static whilst standing. They fought with katana swords, which was a production first for me. They’re very slender swords that come with an extremely difficult learning process. The stances they held with their swords before each fight was really cool, and the fight choreography between them was fairly solid.
The commoners and small characters are all in pretty plain modern clothing. Although Jailer is in a 1930’s style suit, which makes him stand out a little more than I think the design team intended. The aristocracy seemed to be going by the motto LEATHER, LEATHER, LEATHER, which reminds me of Rodger De Bris in The Producers. There’s also a lot of jewelry and fake tattoos, most of them look like general tough tats, although Emilia had a set of angels wings on her back. Insert meaning as you will.
The beginning scene was outrageously confusing and odd. It was pretty awful to me-I’m familiar with the story and even I didn’t realize what was happening until the scene was almost over! Hippolyta was taking every scene like a revenge speech by Lady Macbeth (it always comes back to Macbeth), she speaks slowly and sternly usually pointing at the receiver of her “wrath.” The players-more like sloppy mechanicals- not that their movements were sloppy, but their appearance and attitude.The players’s performance started in a normal Elizabethan-style dance and then suddenly you’re watching two men joust each other with phallic-horse puppets. Think Rocky Horror Picture Show meets a Tudor Masque performance and your imagination is probably pretty close. Literally everything was about sex in this show, I told you! The scene where Arcite, Palamon, and Emilia all pray to the gods separately was so boring and peculiar. Each actor went up to to do their monologue and beg guidance, strength, or forgiveness, and waited on a sign from a god. These gods were standing idly by in the second story audience, placidly looking down upon them with stony faces.
I just expected a higher quality and set of expectations from the RSC, which is maybe my fault as a viewer. However, if a theatre has decades of shows with legendary reputations, you’d think there would be higher standards. Maybe I’m wrong.