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FringeReview UK 2018

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Shakespeare’s Globe

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Dark Comedy, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe


Low Down

Barrie Rutter returns to the Globe to direct The Two Noble Kinsmen. Jessica Worrall provides a spectacular array of costumes to enliven the already-festooned Globe stage, enlivened with Ewan Wardrop’s choreography. Eliza Carthy’s music directed by Andy Moore strikes a felicitous balance between folk and soft fiddle sounds. The work of Fight Director Kevin McCurdy’s mainly to be seen in Act Three. Till June 30th.


A Two Noble Kinsmen where the show-stealer’s a secondary character, yet a production silvering pathos with laughter for its eponymous heroes, rebirth from tragedy for everyone, a vivid raid on genre.


This is what the Globe’s about, where energy and festivity enliven a play weighed with ceremonials and processions celebrating more vigorous offstage action. A play that in a word can drag if its essential balances aren’t struck, or even grasped.


Fresh from twenty-six years leading Northern Broadsides Barrie Rutter returns to the Globe after twenty-two years (from before its official opening) greeted by the same Front of House manager asking what kept him.


The Two Noble Kinsmen, we’re reminded, contains Shakespeare’s actual last words to the audience, rather than The Tempest, since he closes the play he and Fletcher collaborated on, as he did with Cardenio/Double Falsehood and (most think) Henry VIII. It’s a little more Fletcher’s play (in the central acts) but bearing joint obsessions: Fletcher on ruptured friendship, both with choric commentaries, Shakespeare’s with deflating heroes and escapes into woods and love rivalry (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).


Indeed Shakespeare’s come full circle with twinning titles and obsessions, both dramatists highlighting same-sex friendship: the two kisnmen, the heroine and her girlfriend dying at eleven, King Theseus bear-hugging his friend, to his future queen’s consternation. Shakespeare’s also picked up on his recent Romance. Pericles (another collaboration of sorts) took medieval poet John Gower as narrator. The present work takes Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale who himself took from Boccaccio who took from an ancient Greek tale filtered through Latin; but dispenses with clunky narration in favour of courtier cluckings.


There’s an energy in the look too. Rutter’s frequent collaborator Jessica Worrall provides a spectacular array of costumes to enliven the already-festooned Globe stage. Vernal twinings of the sort we’ve seen in the Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for instance are contrasted with ceremonial gestures. No more so than in the opening’s white bolt for the marital procession of Theseus and Hippolyta, topped with decorations above, and Jacobean-seeming screens mounted around two audience boxes nearest the stage. There’s a cart wheeling on bodies or condemned men, alarming pikes and juggling balls.


Costumes range from glowing primaries (the kinsmen: Palamon’s blue against Arcite’s gold yellow and russet), the dark reds of Moyo Akenadé’s Hippolyta; rich Jacobean apparel and silver and gold threadwork on black of Jude Akuwudike’s Theseus and Matt Henry’s Pirithous; the velvety dark of heroine Emilia’s sober costumery (Ellora Torchia). The three black-clad queens turn party-girls in brief sumptuaries, with Sue Devaney’s First Queen returning as a soberly comic 17th century quack. Most, there’s the slashed tatterdemalion rainbow strips of the visiting Morris-dancing troop. It’s the most joyous riot of clothing I’ve seen here; the bar’s already high.


Not that you can fix an eye on rainbows since they shiver into pieces with Rutter’s perpetual motion, via Ewan Wardrop’s choreography. Here too we’re presented with dance as an integral spectacle, not an obligatory gesture or occasionally spasm. There’s been a freshening-up of such Globe arrangements in recent years, and this is a play – and production – allowing dance at its heart. It’s Rutter; there’ll be clogs too.


So Eliza Carthy’s music directed by Andy Moore strikes a felicitous balance between folk and soft fiddle sounds echoing reels fed through English viols; with brass fanfares out of Gabrielli’s contemporaneous Venice. It’s earthy and ethereal at the same time.


Kinsmen Bryan Dick’s Arcite and Paul Stocker’s Palamon aren’t present at the beginning. Just like A Midsummer Night’s Dream Theseus leads Hippolyta out to another anticipated wedding, this time interrupted by three queens demanding burial for their husbands slain by cruel Creon. Akuwudike sounds magnificent and moves with authority – though this Theseus is at odds with his own noble impulses. Akenadé’s not yet a bride but her stentorian delivery and height mark her out as a most convincing Amazon warrior, though her moves are more stately than Akuwudike’s Theseus who exudes troubled conscience. ’I am entreating of myself to do/That which you kneel to have me.’ This self-reflexiveness, the civil-warring in Theseus’ self takes more physical form later in two bodies, coming back to cause more of the same in Theseus. He’s conscientious, but a divided self, not a wintering Prospero.


With enormous hesitation – everyone else bending knees with the queens – the go-ahead for war with swift victory follows, and a triple bier’s brought on. The three queens up black parasols and we’re at a Nine Night, the Caribbean celebration of the dead. Few can marry such diversities convincingly; Rutter succeeds in a thirty-second dance-off banishing the first act’s sorrows whilst hinting that joy and grief are going to attend weddings henceforth. It’s also a way of lifting the heavy first act’s ceremonies.


Palamon and Arcite, reluctant fighters for Creon are carted on near death and off, cured and imprisoned. There’s a medieval bonding clinch though clanking chains keep it at bay. But Palamon and Arcite’s vows are no sooner made than Emilia walks past and Palamon spots her first. Stocker allows a good gawping pause; pauses spice this production deliciously even if the first half allows a beat between some of the cues. This tiny hiccup vanishes in the crisp, powerful action after the interval.


You feel somehow that Arcite’s only slightly usurped Palamon, sicne the latter speaks hyerbolically but Arcite ‘would love erh as a woman’ which gets most contemporary votes. The dramatists cleverly shift symapthies between the kinsmen who fall to vowing deadly if amicably-entered combat for Emilia who for a long period gets little say.


Stasis is avoided by the arbitrary decision (never explained though a line of backstory might have done it) to let Arcite go into exile and Palamon fester. Both enlarge themselves in the neighbouring woods of course, Arcite with his horsmeanship and wrestling skills (unlike as You like It, not on show) and Palamon.


This is where Francesca Mills as the diminutive Jailer’s Daughter explodes onto the stage. So many productions ask why somehow this unnamed paragon of devotion and madness couldn’t be Palamon’s love interest and the other two pair up. Rutter’s casting underscores a social division the audience put to scorn at once, as he intends. Mills is a phenomenon. She rails with desire. ‘I am base,/My father the mean keeper of this prison/ And he a prince.’ This gets a laugh too, but better than this is her brief hesitation looking from Palamon who never addresses a word onstage to her, to her suitor. ‘What a difference ‘twixt man… and man.’


Mills runs Ophelia-like having enlarged her prince, who never appears in the woods with her, and whilst her father’s condemned she Opheliarises herself, joins a troupe, tells fortunes, runs a riot of dances with them, bouncing off and even managing later a dance-off with Theseus himself. As it ends, her rainbow garb’s plucked off, she’s discarded, doors close against her and a collective sigh goes up. She’s stolen the show. Her alter appearances, her antic distractions are muted against her father’s care and Devaney’s mock bombast of a cure to Andy Cryer’s ever-decent, ever-baffled Jailer, which is purely sexual and deliciously takes no account of morality whatsoever.


The work of Fight Director Kevin McCurdy’s mainly to be seen in Act Three. The two kinsmen encountering each other – Arcite nobly feeds up Palamon so they can kill each other – are caught jousting, condemned, reprieved so long as one of the dies in mortal combat with his retainer, and again as in Act One Act Five, primarily Shakespeare’s focuses on the agency of women.


Emilia’s had less to do apart from recalling he friendship, but In Act Three her long speech swings Theseus and Torchia grounds her rationale in clarity and a winning eloquence pinioned one being ‘the scorn of women’ should for her sake two such men be executed ‘mothers/Following the dead cold ashes of their sons’. In the Fourth Act we’re subjected to a much-needed monologue. It’s a fantastic equivocation over the two men, where she ‘must cry for both!’


Stocker’s paradox is to appear distrait, pinched, outraged and somewhat bellicose. He handles this as a beautiful foil to Dick’s reasonable Arcite, the soft-seeming earthy suitor who might seem to have an edge. But sympathies sway and Venus’ codes are tricky in the fag-end of fin’amour. Arcite’s choice of Mars (a briar-weave of a bull) to Palamon’s Venus (an earthy briar dove) direct us, and when all combat, denouement and language is done, we wonder at reversals. Theseus speaks for all proclaiming with pagan wonder: ‘Oh, you heavenly charmers,/What things you make of us!.. Let us be thankful/For that which is, and with you leave dispute/With that are above our question. Let’s go off/And bear us like the time.’


There’s fine work by others in the cast, the scorned Wooer, Jon Trenchard’s infinitely wibbling voice and hang-dog look in a welter of ochre folds. Jo Vantyker’s etched Schoolmaster, and Melissa James and Kat Rose-Martin’s Second and Third Queens make striking contrasts in collective lament and celebration. Henry’s Pirithous has more to do and has a way of attaining stature whilst apparently deferring to Theseus, taking the womens’ sides. It’s one of those inflections – loyalty to women and reason from a male-bonded world – that if we could allow it to, bears examination. Henry manages quite a bit of this in his demeanour.


There are things this production might not manage but which virtually none so far have. That barium trace of doubleness, self-reflexive civil-warring is imaged in design but it’s a text whose inwardness is convulsive and perfunctory. And what gains some slow processional pondering might make of it could lose an audience. It’s not so much a play of depths but of mirror-imaging, where the profundity’s mercurial. We’re looking at a bright Book of Hours. Rutter’s done it profound service, adding a warmth and agency that opens up this pageant. This is hopefully just the first of many such he’ll bring to the Globe.