The Two Noble Kinsmen was the last play Shakespeare wrote and it is generally accepted that he wrote the first and fifth Acts and that the rest, mostly, was written by John Fletcher. It is rarely performed although it sits neatly in the romantic tragi-comedy genre. Blanche McIntyre’s revival for the RSC makes a strong case for revision of thought about this play and expertly indicates what sections should be brutally cut to maintain interest and coherence. Two excellent central performances unearth the gold in amongst the garbage.
What does it take to entice a modern audience into the theatre to watch Shakespeare’s final play?
Is it the promise that one won’t only hear the Bard’s words, but someone else’s too? Is it the promise of dirty jokes? Is it the potential for the good guys to be sporting prominent tattoos? Is it the hope that homo-eroticism, or at least unrequited same-sex love, might be alluded to if not on show? Is it the prospect of audience interaction of the type likely to bring a blush to the cheek or a guffaw to the lips? Is it the prospect that there will be some sort of party scene where people get dressed up in variations on the costumes of the main characters from The Wizard Of Oz, where Dorothy will be molested by a Baboon and some jokers will have a fight with blow-up penis sharks? All while a matronly hockey-stick hunting librarian/school mistress looks on askance?
From a viewing of her revival of The Two Noble Kinsmen, now playing at the Swan Theatre (for the RSC), one would think that Blanche McIntyre would assent approvingly to each of the aforementioned elements, possibly with a “hush now” of excitement about her response. Certainly, her revival contains all of those elements. And more.
What McIntyre’s The Two Noble Kinsmen doesn’t have is comprehensibility, coherence or charm.
The opening scene is almost entirely incomprehensible. Nothing anyone says is said in a way which attaches meaning to sounds, importance to words. Several people, in quite silly costumes, vomit into your ear for what seems like an eternity. It is almost unendurable.
Happily, some of those people never return to the stage in any significant speaking role; but, frighteningly, some do. Two of those, Gyuri Sarossy and Allison McKenzie, who play Theseus and Hippolyta, have no business being on a classical stage anywhere, let alone at the RSC. Their acting is lamentable. Utterly lamentable.
But they are not the worst offenders here. A completely unnecessary sub-plot, involving a Jailer (Paul McEwen) and his daughter (Danusia Samal), was rendered lifeless and unendurable; excruciating torpor leading to absolute enervation. Perhaps there is something interesting in this material, but McIntyre came nowhere near illuminating what that was with McEwen and Samal in the roles.
The Two Noble Kinsmen seems to need the attention of a dramaturg with a good pair of scissors, an eye for drama and a profound sense of what can work. Or at least that is the clear impression given by McIntyre’s revival.
Why not just bin the play? Is this not the reason it is so rarely produced?
There’s the rub.
The Two Noble Kinsmen has a deal of material that is first rate, that, like much of Shakespeare, is timelessly relevant, funny, sexy and sad. It’s just that the rest of it is not in the same league – and, most interestingly, the material that (in the main) shines is generally agreed not to have been penned by Shakespeare.
The interesting bit is a scintillating and savage satire about society expectations, notions of chivalry, concepts of masculinity and femininity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tale of interest concerns two noble kinsmen, soldiers who have fought together and sworn to be blood brothers. Until they are jailed, that is, and spot a beautiful woman from their prison.
Yes, the mere sight of this lustrous maiden (Emilia) makes both men swear that she must be theirs – and, it follows, that if one tries to take the maiden from the other, then one of them must die. They argue about who saw her first in order to establish who has the legitimate claim – neither seem too troubled by what Emilia may think. (She does not care for them but she has no choice).
The two kinsmen, Arcite (Jamie Wilkes) and Palamon (James Corrigan), fight, play, flirt and care for each other even as they plan the duel which will see one of them shake off this mortal coil. They might not converse about the love that dare not speak its name, but their bromance is highly charged, deeply emotional and, inevitably, tragic.
Wilkes is quite superb as Arcite. His command of the language is faultless. He can make a phrase fly with grace and the next moment descend into juvenile coarseness. His eyes flash with excellent possibility continually and he is completely at home exchanging quips with the audience. Even a sudden power failure could not stop him in his stride.
Wilkes is precisely the sort of performer needed at the RSC.
Matching him step for step, gilded phrase for gilded phrase, comic nuance for comic nuance, is Corrigan, who makes an equally fine impression as Palamon and who is as equally needed at the RSC.
When the two first appear, they seem like traditional jocks. They look alike, have similarly well-trained physiques, similar backpacks, similar accoutrements of sporty masculinity – they are almost mirror images. This is funny in its own right but also well serves the play. It is in these scenes that McIntyre strikes gold.
McNamee does as well as any gifted actress could with the part of Emilia. She is a triumph of grace and style, beautiful to watch and to hear. The sad, silent subplot for her character is nicely done .
This is not a play replete with happy endings. Like all good satires, you laugh at the stupidity of the chivalrous code that binds Arcite and Palmon until it cracks – and then quite different emotions engulf you.
This is the first RSC production of The Two Noble Kinsmen in some time. Despite three excellent actors (Wilkes, Corrigan and McNamee) McIntyre’s production is a mess, with more low points than highs. Anna Fleischle’s bizarre faux Games Of Thrones set and costumes don’t help – black skulls as epaulettes? Anyone?
Two kinsmen? Yes. Noble? Not so much.