“Nobility enforce a freedom out of Bondage, making misery their Mirth”

What: The Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare

Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company

When: October 2016

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) performances are oh-so-relevant. Or at least they think they are.

But are they trying a little too hard?

Over the last twelve months, we have had a production of Hamlet which had something to do with British colonialism; a production of Cymbeline which had something to do with the European referendum; and now The Two Noble Kinsmen has something to do with gender fluidity.

…something to do… in each case but I’m not sure what.

Can Shakespeare’s attitudes be contrasted and compared to “modern” values or was Shakespeare writing with an alarming foresight of our twenty-first century viewpoints?

I’m in the former camp but many of the RSC’s directors and critics seem to be in the latter which is making these plays bear more than they can carry.

Michael Moon in his interesting essay in the programme quotes “The Two Noble Kinsmen” where Emilia says that “the true love ‘tween maid and maid may be more than…” to question whether the play has a tone of homoeroticism. The Telegraph’s critic goes further and says “It’s not our modern sensibility that detects a homo-erotic undercurrent – it’s there in the text.”

The Guardian in quoting Arcite’s “We are one another’s wife,” to suggest that the sexual confusion does not stop with Emilia but extends to virtually the whole cast. According to that reviewer Theseus is bisexual.

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Arcite and Palamon face off in a duel

Now far be it from me and all that but most of that is achieved by this current production’s gestures, looks and kisses and not by the text. The text has less to do with twenty-first century notions and our generation’s arguments about sexual mores and more to do with characters like Emilia, Arcite and Palamon struggling to consider whether love and desire for the opposite sex could be a stronger impulse than their heretofore felt devotion and friendship for classmates and cousins. It is about maturing, growing and struggling with changes – things that we all go through whether heterosexual or homosexual. One reason, I would guess why essays and reviews of this production centre in on the relationship between Emilia and her maid or Theseus or Pirithous is that whilst the language of love is just as strong in the bond between Arcite and Palamon, we are not yet ready to impose an homo-erotic motive on the dialogue between two near blood relatives.

So all this baggage of looks and smiles means that what could have been a strong production is a very mixed final product.

We have some strong performances – James Corrigan as Palamon never puts a foot wrong and Jamie Wilkes as Arcite is not far behind although he does appear to occasionally stumble.

Danusia Samal as the jailer’s daughter manages to overcome the obvious comparisons with the much better known role of Ophelia and carries her role with the just right amount of conviction as she moves from innocence and shyness through passion to madness to hopefully regained sanity.

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Danusia Samal

Frances McNamee does the best she can with her director’s interpretation of her role as Emilia but it is all a little confusing as she seems to genuinely find Palamon and Arcite appealing (that I’m afraid is there in the text) and so her role is divided by the interval. Rather than developing, she becomes rather two different people.

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Frances McNamee as Emilia

The Dramatis Personae of the standard text loses a whole range of minor parts for this production and gains a complete list of Greek gods – who seem to do very little, other than stand and listen to the rest of the cast’s pleas.

The opening scene on the printed page reads well and is very Shakespearean and this is where I am content to agree with other critics. The Guardian critic says it “is here incomprehensibly gabbled” whilst the Telegraph’s critic says “the verse-speaking at the start is distractingly poor”. Indeed, it is and really this opening mess with too many actors with their backs to the audience (difficult to achieve in a theatre of this design) and too many lines spoken too quickly and not felt or thought through needs an entire re-modelling.

The costumes are a bizarre mix of twenty first century cool and late 1930’s Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” cinema serial. The second half of the play loses the impetus of the first – primarily because it must cast off continuity with the sexual ambiguity of the first.

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But, oh those costumes

So Blanche McIntyre has directed something which is good in parts and which has a play in there somewhere still breathing but like everything that the RSC has produced recently – except King Lear – it is a little top-loaded with ideas which cannot be traced back entirely to the play’s source. Which is John Fletcher? Which is William Shakespeare? Which is Blanche McIntyre? Which of them did it, as James Agate once famously asked? It will take an extremely sharp scalpel to divide between the flesh and the spirit of this one.

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