The best production I’ve ever seen of The Two Gentlemen of Verona was set in Amish country (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2006, dir. Bill Rauch). Verona was a Mennonite community, Milan was a swish Stepford-in-Brooks-Brothers villa, and in Act 5 a rave full of Goths popped up. It was the most ludicrous thing. It sounds like what happens when a director loses a bet with a sadistic dramaturg. But it really did work, and it made the play work.
Two Gents is not a great play, okay. It’s about a love quadrangle among Proteus and Valentine (best friends from Verona), and Julia and Sylvia (women from Verona and Milan respectively). Proteus starts out interested in Julia, then he and Valentine travel to Milan and both fall in love with Sylvia, who has fallen in love with Valentine. Julia disguises herself as a boy (drink!) and travels to Milan to be near Proteus, there’s a bit with a dog, at the end everyone runs off to the woods and Proteus tries to rape Sylvia, and everyone who has lines afterwards seems basically okay with that (nb who doesn’t have lines: Sylvia). It is, as they say, problematic. What the Amish setting did was suggest how Julia – who otherwise seems clever, sensible and observant – could have reasonably fallen in love with Proteus – who takes all of five seconds after leaving home to betray his friend, his fiancée and do a bunch of stupid, malicious things – without Julia just being a giant gooey idiot. Maybe Proteus is a sheltered guy newly out in a world he’s been told is dangerous and immoral, and he doesn’t have the toolbox to participate in it ethically. (It doesn’t at all excuse Proteus from behaving horribly – but it explains why Julia missed the signs.) Now if I remember correctly my 2006 play programme, the idea behind the CONCEPT was that the director was having trouble differentiating between “Verona” and “Milan” in the play. He decided to make them as radically different as possible: Verona insular and superficially strange, but deeply supportive and loving; and Milan welcoming and attractive, but with underlying danger if strangers don’t conform. In the woods, a bunch of “outlaws” terrify Valentine, then befriend and help him; these became the Goths, who seem terrifying to upper-middle-class dads but are actually laid-back and benevolent. It made so many of the characters’ odd reactions and quick turnarounds plausible.
Or the CONCEPT can make the play a bit sharper: last year, the Globe set The Taming of the Shrew in Ireland in 1916, just before the Easter Rising. This wasn’t just for the 100th anniversary, there was a connection with the play’s arguments over gender roles: the Proclamation of the Irish Republic included equal rights for women, and this of course was attacked by hostile and defensive reactionaries who believed “traditional” gender roles were being threatened. I wouldn’t expect audiences to obviously associate the Easter Rising with women’s rights, but the link was made clear in the play, through large print newspaper headlines (being read by Kate), and because it’s (in a good way) a pretty straightforward CONCEPT to get across: it’s a time of unusual social change, people are more than usually antsy about gender roles, and there is an explicit, openly discussed conflict going on about How Men And Women Should Be. The play didn’t “need” the setting to help adjust it, like Two Gents did, but it allowed Kate to be politically conscious when she spoke, and made the audience think seriously about the political problems with the rom-com conventions like the play.
Or the CONCEPT can draw out under-emphasised parts of a play that already works very well, like Much Ado About Nothing. A few years ago the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (sorry I keep going back to OSF for these, but I grew up there) set Much Ado in the Second World War, with Messina as an Italian Resistance HQ. The set was dressed with manila folders and paperwork, there were a couple of airplane sound cues, when the characters looked up and waved at their “friends” in the air, and women sat upstage listening to the radio and transcribing on typewriters. That setting pulled out an interesting part of the play, which doesn’t always come across through all the zingy banter, about trust and reliability. This was a tight group working under long-term stress; although Don Pedro and the men had just come back from a successful battle, meaning the war was beginning to turn, in such a small closed setting everyone had to choose to trust each other, and this was the atmosphere Don John was able to work in. For the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, it opened up how crucial it is that Benedick sticks around after the wedding to see if Hero is all right: all the other men scampered off, and it meant Beatrice could start to trust him again. What became appealing about this version of them was not just that they were clever, and so obnoxiously made for each other, but also that they were basically decent, brave people, who believe in right and wrong and are willing to jump up and do stupid things for it, whether that was risking getting bombed to pass on radio messages, or picking a fight with your army best friend over a teenage girl you don’t even know that well. It was incredibly earnest, but it was also coherent and brought out part of the play I hadn’t seen in that way before.
All this is to say that I’m 100% there for CONCEPT when it makes sense, and does something for the play.
I am not convinced that the Mexican Revolution does anything for Much Ado About Nothing, or that Much Ado does anything for the Mexican Revolution.
Because I am a cheapskate (and, let’s pretend, morally don’t believe you should have to pay £4 to understand what the director is trying to do), I didn’t buy the programme of this production, where the director explained what was up. But I did flip through it at the gift shop and got a bit about how he came across(?) photos of female revolutionaries and was struck by the visual of women wearing (and I’m paraphrasing here) traditional feminine clothes, with full skirts and bright colours, but also carrying rifles and bandoliers. (Horribly sorry if this isn’t quite right, but it’s what I had to go on.) I mean, sure! Women with guns and skirts! But I really have no idea what about the revolution we were supposed to pick up; it didn’t seem to be anything about class or peasants’ interests, the brothers Don are very much accepted as nobility.
The acting was sharp and strong. Beatriz Romilly (so good as Joan a couple years ago in the Henry VIs!) and Matthew Needham were both self-reflexively funny, the kind of jokes and constant monitoring of how they were coming across that comes from a lifetime of being The Clever One in the room. Benedick kept trailing off sentences and waving his hands around to finish the idea, and Beatrice would suddenly cut herself off to start a new thought, or shut down a forbidden one. These were not people who allowed themselves to express themselves freely, and the pleasure of the discovery of their “hands against their hearts” was that they could finally let themselves open up and express their true wants to another human, even if it artistically sucked.
In the text and direction, a few bits about women were sorted in ways I’m happy to have happen forever: at the wedding, Margaret (Sarah Seggari) tried to shout out what had happened with the fake Hero sex before being forcibly hustled out by the bad guys; she also took two of Claudio’s lines in the penitence scene, showing that her friendship with Hero was something worth mourning. And Beatrice and Benedick’s last exchange was swapped, so Beatrice got “Peace! I will stop your mouth” and was the one who insisted on dancing.
In cross-casting, DOÑA JUANA, JEEESUS CHRIST. Don John (you know, Keanu) has become Doña Juana (Jo Dockery), Don Pedro’s (older?) sister, which gave the whole “why do I have to make smiley-smiley to my douchebag brother whom I hate” scene a WHOLE new resonance and it was beautiful. She is objectively the bad guy and not too great at sisterhood solidarity, but I was crying with love for her every time she was on stage. Especially the part where she spins a rifle around. I’m so sorry, I missed basically all the dialogue in her scenes because everything I use for listening had rushed to my face and chest, I could only make googly eyes at her grumpy face and dream about her shooting me through the heart and then pulling me onto her horse and we ride away into the sunset to ruin men’s lives in complicated ways at masquerade parties. I literally had tears in my eyes about an angry woman character just getting to be angry and hate people. This character is never allowed to be a man again, also must always wear those boots. I LOVE YOU.
Other little changes, a lot of the more obscure words were changed, usually not in a noticeable way unless you have the text memorised, for example from school or the film. “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs” changed to “She speaks knives, and every word stabs”, which I have exactly zero problems in productions that aim to be popularly accessible (ie ideally most of them). No one knows what a “poniard” is, also who cares. A bigger and more thorough change is that the place names were changed, from “Messina” to “Monterey”, and “Padua” to – I think – “Toledo”? I don’t think this is necessary, to be honest. All productions of Shakespeare take place in alternate realities, built out of costumes and sets and props. You don’t need to also build the reality out of new place names. We know that Messina is an imaginary place, it is fine to have it also be the name of a made-up mission or whatever. No one is going to go “but there’s no place called that in Mexico?? so where are they???”
A brief sidebar about Americans. I was standing next to a group of American undergrads (when did they get so YOUNG?!) on a term abroad, with “host families” and everything. The girls – several of whom were not white – liked the setting. One of the boys said he didn’t get what the play had to do with the Mexican Revolution. “It matters to me to see so many Latina actors in Shakespeare,” one of the girls said. It was great. They also talked in a blustery, slightly awkward way about how “Europe” generally “hates Americans”, where it was clear they had heard about this idea in theory, but not experienced it in real life. It was sweet. I remember being those kids. You just don’t know!
This made it astonishingly great to be standing next to them during the second half of the show, specifically Dogberry’s bits. Ewan Wardrop’s “Dog Berry” was a blithe, cheerful, clueless American film director, following the revolutionaries around to make a documentary (this detail apparently lifted from Pancho Villa, which, sure). Seeing another culture’s stereotype of your own culture is always disconcerting, and oh my god the jokes leaned in hard. Berry’s film equipment was draped with the Stars and Stripes, and he entered with a beatific look to an expressive trumpet warble of the opening bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. After each scene he said brightly, “Well, I think that went well! Very well”, and walked smartly off. It kept going: Claudio’s racist line about being willing to marry not-Hero “even if she were an Ethiop” was changed to “even if she were American!” The confusion and dismay of the baby Americans was almost tasteable. Ah, I remember when I was an undergrad on foreign exchange in the UK, and how baffling it was to find out how this country thinks of us. Our friends! Our mother! Special relationship! WELCOME, THEY THINK WE’RE STUPID AND DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY WE SMILE SO MUCH.
There was also a playful thing with Dogberry’s language that was very well done. So it became evident that, in the world of the play, characters speaking in British accents (and there was a variety, not just RP) are speaking “Spanish”, and Dogberry speaking in an American accent is speaking “English”. His malapropisms were because he was trying to speak “Spanish” but kept getting the words wrong, and was being patiently corrected by bilingual Verges. (This went in the other direction: when other characters spoke to him in “Spanish”, he looked blank and nodded along cheerfully, with that glazed in-a-bar-on-holiday face, before chirping, “Didn’t get any of that!” and turning to Verges for an explanation.) It was well shaped and it made the joke of “ha ha, he’s getting the words wrong” actually funny, which I did not think was humanly possible. (That said – it’s a bit rich of Brits to be making fun of other countries for not knowing how to speak anything besides English. Is it that America’s current political catastrophe is supposed to make us feel slightly less stupid about Brexit? Because, guys.)
About Ewan Wardrop. He was Bottom in last summer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and both of his performances at the Globe are getting funnier the more I think about them. I’m pretty sure this is a good thing. He doesn’t go out there trying to win the audience over, he just throws his performance down on the floor like a forty-pound carp, and if you don’t like it, sucks for you. It’s like running into a granite cliff of comedy. I love it. I never realised just how obnoxious it is when Shakespeare’s clowns try to be crowd-pleasing and Funny. I can’t wait for him to play Feste in a few years or more, and really crank it up.
At the end – the unbridged gulf between the CONCEPT and the play became really explicit in the last ten minutes. So the last scene led into an all-cast song and dance in Spanish, a peppy up-tempo “jig” with all the play’s couples paired up, and then seguing into the bows. Hooray! Applause! Blackout! More applause! That was jolly! Let’s go home! Oh – wait, some more serious music started up. The actors came back out. The lighting was also much more serious. The actors went to a big wooden crate upstage labelled FOR WINCHESTER RIFLES, pulled out sashes in dark green, white and red, and put them on and sang an Intense Meaningful Revolutionary Song that involved a lot of solidarity power fists.
What did those two musical bits have to do with each other, thematically? Literally I can think of nothing. Was the revolutionary song being sung by the actors-as-actors? If so, what are they trying to say? If it’s comment about current Mexican politics, or revolutions, or nation-forming, it went straight over my head (also, while we’re at it, is it racist to have a Mexican Revolution CONCEPT and with white people cast in the leads? probably, right? but also “Mexican” isn’t a straightforward ethnic category and the “whiteness” of Spanish Europeans in the US and ?maybe the UK? isn’t straightforward either, and in general, am very pro- CONCEPTS that encourage casting more BAME actors, aah I don’t know). If they were still in character, why were the evil sister and the comedy American director also earnestly doing the solidarity fists? What was that song doing?
What does the Mexican Revolution have to do with Much Ado About Nothing? I was so ready for a good answer, but didn’t get one. Fortunately literally everything else about the production was good to great, and there’s nothing morally wrong with a swing and a miss.