THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 31st August, 2016
Shakespeare’s final play, written in collaboration with John Fletcher, lifts its plot from Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. It’s a story of friendship – the friendship between cousins Palamon and Arcite and the wedge driven between them by their infatuation/obsession over Emilia, a woman they only view from afar. The cousins are prisoners of war and, as Mel Brooks might have put it, prisoners of love. Fate holds different things in store: Arcite is banished, Palamon, with the help of the jailer’s love-struck daughter, escapes…
It’s a satisfyingly sensational plot, performed with vigour here. At times, the speeches can be rather dense and impenetrable but the energy of the cast, especially from Palamon (James Corrigan) and Arcite (Jamie Wilkes) helps us to keep focussed. Corrigan is a charming, petulant presence, while Wilkes’s Arcite is arch – the affection between the two convinces both in the lauding of each other’s virtues and the bickering when they fall out. Chivalric values are held up for ridicule as much as admiration. Within this world, where the gods answer prayers directly, we may understand characters’ motivations absolutely.
As Jailer’s Daughter, a thankless role that doesn’t even get a name, Danusia Samal stands out. She has three lengthy monologues that track her decline from lovesick young girl to Ophelia-style mad wench. Samal both appeals and convinces, emotions undimmed by the sometimes heavy-handed writing.
There is much to enjoy in Blanche McIntyre’s production of this seldom-staged story. A Bacchanalian morris dance, complete with phallic hobbyhorses, fight scenes (directed by Kate Waters), and live medieval-modern music composed by Tim Sutton. Palamon and Arcite climb the bars of their prison like apes in cages – the central relationship of the titular two underpins the entire production. The jarring note for me is the costume design. Anna Fleischle gives us era-less clothing rather than evoking classical Greece. Some of the choices are bizarre to say the least. Amazonian Hippolyta looks like she’s off to New Romantic night at the student union. In one scene she brings on a chainsaw but doesn’t use it. The Jailer’s suit makes him look like a weary supply teacher, and Emilia’s twin buns and white shift bring to mind Princess Leia. There is something performing-artsy about the designs that doesn’t match the quality and commitment of the actors.
But the dramatic storyline engages and the play’s teasing of same-sex relationships vs love and marriage make it seem very ‘now’. The strongest, starkest message comes from the ebullient Gyuri Sarossy’s Theseus at the end, driven at last to compassion by the unfolding of events: For what we lack we laugh, for what we have, are sorry.
Ain’t that the truth?!