The first rule of Knight Club is: You do not talk about Knight Club.
Let’s get one thing out of the way, before I begin my actual review: The Two Noble Kinsmen is not a particularly brilliant, or original, play – it being a curious admixture of intermittent senior Shakespeare and under-pressure junior Fletcher – not part, therefore, of the ‘true’ canon: but staged, here, in celebration of thirty years of my favourite theatre.
As well as its hotchpotch of a ‘plot’ (there will be many such ‘finger-quotes’ – you have been warned…) owing quite a lot to Chaucer’s The Knightes Tale – itself derived from Boccaccio… – and not as well-adapted as you would normally expect from Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son – many of its characters (some of whom, in the original text, aren’t even given proper names) appear to have been ‘borrowed’ from a random selection of his other dramas – even if in (light) disguise. [At least there are no girls pretending to be boys, or vice versa: although the play – and the production – is somewhat heartening in its attitude to same-sex relationships and bisexuality (perhaps a reflection of the authors’ own personas…?). It’s just a shame that the same can’t be said for mental illness.]
We’re the middle children of Shakespeare, man. No purpose or place.
For example: Hippolyta and Theseus are directly transposed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream – but I’m not sure I remember them waging war on their neighbours on their way to be wed; nor being in a love triangle with Pirithous, their master of revels (Egeus, by any other name). Additionally, Palamon and Arcite [pronounce Ar‑kite (lemona‑a‑ade!)] appear to be two noble gentlemen ex-pats from Verona – perhaps bringing Emilia with them from Milan on the way. (Her Waiting-Woman, though, is surely Katherine’s Alice, sans accent – “Oui, vraiment” – from Henry V.)
Furthermore, the Jailer’s Daughter is a combination of Ophelia and – yes, of course, there’s a play (of sorts) within a play…! – an initially unwilling member of the Rude Mechanicals [here rudely replaced by unnecessary Country Folk/Morris Dancers: who themselves are probably taken directly from Beaumont’s The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn – and whose leader, (originally) Gerrold (here a Hyacinth Bucket-like Schoolmistress), may well be Holofernes’ cousin…]. After that, I sort of lost count… – if not the plot….
This is not the worst thing that can happen.
I shall instead, therefore, concentrate on the quality (of which there’s quite a lot; and of many differing and opposing kinds) of the RSC’s current production – on until 7 February 2017 (possibly… – although I have never seen the Swan quite this empty: so no wonder they were handing out £10 tickets…). After all, there is no point metaphorically docking a (crucial but metaphorical) star from my rating (as may others) just because the mishmash of a text is not up there with Bill’s best. It’s not like it’s new writing – we’ve known it’s been held together with Jacobean filler for over four hundred years… – so let’s just get over it, and see (like Mrs Lincoln) if I enjoyed the show.
Go ahead, Tysoe, you can cry.
Well, it turns out that the text is the least of the problems: although, you could, if you were being mean, blame all the other flaws on it… – but there are simply far too many; and that would, in reality, be a disingenuous excuse of the lowest order.
Normally, I would argue against performing major surgery on Shakespeare’s words – but the majority, here, are Fletcher’s: and they are not his best (by a long way); nor is the plotting – so, taking your lead from the box-cutter taken to Doctor Faustus, I, personally, would have completely expunged the irrelevant padding of the Jailer’s Daughter subplot – especially as her downward spiral into madness should not be made into something the audience continually and insensitively titters at (was I the only one seething with discomfort and anger…?) – thrown the clodhoppers in a blender; and instead concentrated on the relationship between the two eponymous leads. [Surely we stopped laughing at the mentally ill many, many years ago? I thought the days of paying to see the ‘exhibits’ at Bedlam were long over. (Seems I was wrong.)]
How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways…. Basically, the production suffers with a bad case of what from now on will be known in these ’ere parts as Cymbelinitis – an inflammation of the importance of appearance and ‘design’ over the strategic and fundamental narrative and directorial arc (caused by giving precedence to tactical gimmickry); resulting in a distension of the play’s temporal existence (that is: it is far too bloody long) and a concomitant shrinkage of the remaining budget; along with a rather blotchy appearance (or ‘rash’). [Are we supposed to be so utterly chuffed at ticking these ‘rarities’ off our list of seen Shakespearean plays (I choose my words carefully) that we’re then required to turn a blind eye to the calibre of the finished article…?]
You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life.
Like her work on the aforesaid disappointment, Anna Fleischle’s design is clunky, and (sometimes literally) all over the place. (It actually looks as if the cast have been told – one at a time; without any regards to, or desire for, consistency or period; or knowing how the others have chosen… – to go into the costume store and simply pick out the outfits they feel they look best in, or have taken a fancy to. And, surprisingly, some of them obviously felt more comfortable still wearing the jeans and Converse trainers they already had on.) It does not help that the overall ‘style’ (ha, bloody ha) is from the school of 1970s Doctor Who – or, indeed, the school of 1970s The Bard of Tysoe: when teenage me was producing and directing the likes of Oliver! with a budget of thruppence-ha’penny; building sets with rolls of wallpaper, volunteers from the sixth-form art and woodworking clubs; and lighting the results with rigs from the 1950s, and bits of melting, coloured plastic. (Many of the costumes came from second-hand shops: to which they were later returned. I’ll let you draw your own parallels….)
It also doesn’t help that the royal court consists of petulant, hormonal, overgrown teenagers: permanently on the verge of either snogging or squabbling; and with about as much authority as an overripe banana (although I thought Chris Jack, as Pirithous, delivered Shakespeare’s description of Arcite’s death – oh, bugger, I’ve spoiled the plot… – with real, intense feeling, and great clarity…).
This farrago of ‘ideas’ – perhaps to match that ‘plot’ (he said, generously) – thus overwhelms our vision, and distracts from (most of) the action: which, of course, does nothing to aid understanding. (In fact, just the opposite.) Having expunged the Prologue – which at least has the decency to say sorry; whilst attempting to warn us that what follows might leave Chaucer rolling in his grave at the way his material has been treated… – the rich-as-treacle, delightful-as-a-diadem language (yes, this bit is undoubtedly Bill) that (now) begins the play doesn’t sink in: because your senses are overloaded with the gallimaufry (no, that is not Doctor Who’s home planet: it’s a polite word for “dog’s breakfast”); and your brain just cannot cope. Sadly, by the time it’s recovered (apologies for the dents on the upright in the Gallery: my head, it seems, is made of sterner stuff…), we’re deep into Fletcher territory.
How much can you know about yourself, if you’ve never been a knight?
Thankfully, Jamie Wilkes (Arcite) and James Corrigan (Palamon) are now on stage: mesmerizing us with their chunky biceps, camaraderie, and top-notch acting (as well as matching clothes – how the heck did that happen…?!) – all whilst clambering around that set like well-trained chimpanzees (sorry, lads). That they manage to pull this off is solely due to their huge matched volumes of talent and charisma. Their swings (cough) from BFFs to mortal enemies and back are beautifully controlled and delivered; and – apart from a couple of notable exceptions – they act the rest of the company offstage. (Perhaps this is wishful thinking…?)
Those “exceptions” are the luminous Danusia Samal as the Jailer’s Daughter – who portrays the loss of her sanity with Natalie Simpson‑levels of empathy, conviction and veracity… – and her gentle, sincere Wooer (the sympathetic Patrick Knowles). Their final scene together is immensely touching: and, to be honest, the only time I was really moved. (There were no shiny golfing bags, or fluttering blue birds, or a singing-ringing tree, to distract… – just love, pure and incredibly complex: “But you shall not hurt me.” “I will not, sweet”. “If you do, love, I’ll cry.”)
When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered.
Other credits must be given to Tim Sutton, for the subtle and alluring score; and Clare-Louise Appleby, Ivor McGregor, Nick Lee, Andrew Stone-Fewings, Kevin Waterman and John Woolf (music director) for bringing it to life with such skill and feeling; and to Kate Waters (fight director), for some extremely convincing swordsmanship and wrestling. Oh, and thank you to Donald Cooper and the RSC Press Office – as always – for the wonderful photographs.
I’m gonna go inside, and I’m gonna get a chainsaw.
Before I go, if anyone can explain Hippolyta’s weapon ‘metaphor’, then I’ll buy them coffee and a bun in The Other Place. Like so much of what passed in front of me – and yes, there was a cuddly toy (a dog, I think – perhaps in reference to the one in A Midsummer Night’s Dream…?) – I will be having vivid flashbacks and nightmares about it for a long time to come. (I may need more therapy.)
[By the way, this is – in the last five years: that is, since I returned to the RSC… – only the second time I haven’t (thoroughly) enjoyed an evening in the Swan.]
Something on your mind, dear?
One last grump, to end on (appositely). Why on earth has Shakespeare’s last sentence – below – been cut? It is so typically his: and therefore beautiful, and laden with meaning. I sat there waiting for it; and, instead, got some berk applauding well before the house-lights went up. I suppose if you’re going to fuck something up, you might as well do it with attitude….
O you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let’s go off,
And bear us like the time.
– Shakespeare: The Two Noble Kinsmen (V.iv.132-138)