4. The Two Gentlemen of Verona
I remember enjoying The Two Gentlemen of Verona before and wondering why it is so rarely performed, returning to it I feel much the same. I think this is a massively under-appreciated and under-performed play, that contains a number of cracking speeches, some really comic scenarios and a lot of precursors to some of Shakespeare’s later masterpieces.
I’ll start with the main challenge though and it is one that I feel for most of Shakespeare’s comedies, or indeed any of his comic sections: the late 16th century quick-witted, word-play banter just does not translate for a modern audience. I feel this way for much of Shakespeare’s work – it’s one of the reasons why I cut the Falstaff gang from my production of Henry V (there were other reasons, but this was a factor). In this instance though, I think it is very possible to navigate round these moments and/or cut them altogether without it having an especially detrimental effect on the whole. Most of the comedy in this play is situational rather than linguistic so works perfectly well for a modern audience.
One of things I like about this play is that (like most good comedies) it has lots of juicy conflict at its heart. Valentine sets himself up as a young man not interested in love, then promptly falls in love with Silvia whose father wants her to marry someone else. Proteus betroths himself to Julia, then promptly falls in love with Silvia and betrays Valentine (his best friend) in order to have a chance with her. Julia runs away dressed as a boy to be close to Proteus only to end up acting as a go-between in his wooing of Silvia. Silvia runs away to be with Valentine, only to be ‘rescued’ by Proteus who then attempts to force himself on her (in front of Julia) before Valentine (thankfully) prevents him. Much of this (especially the last one) isn’t necessarily that obviously comic but the comedy comes from the tangle Proteus gets himself into and the internal conflict within the characters. The comedy also comes from the impetuosity of all the central characters – acting without thinking through the consequences (consequences the audience can see a mile off!). The final comic element is how close the whole thing is to tragedy – it’s funny because it was so nearly a disaster.
The play is also a fascinating read when thinking of Shakespeare’s development as a writer. When Valentine is banished for attempting to elope with Silvia, his speech is so reminiscent of Romeo’s in Romeo & Juliet I had to read it twice to check it wasn’t the same! We also have precursors for As You Like It when Valentine becomes an outlaw lord in the woods, and of Twelfth Night when Julia dresses up as a boy and becomes a page to Proteus, delivering love messages to Silvia on his behalf – there’s even some business with rings. Like with the Henry VI plays, you feel like the themes, ideas and dynamics that would shape much of Shakespeare’s later work are being formed here.
Also like with Henry VI: Part III, this is a play with some great speeches that would be make useful audition monologues. I’ve definitely used one of Proteus’ speeches myself before and Valentine, Silvia and Julia all have moments that could be nabbed for auditions.
In short, this is definitely a play that I would like to try my hand at directing. I think it has lots of potential and is only underperformed because it is overshadowed by some of Shakespeare’s later comedies. With a bit of cutting and tweaking, I think it has the potential to be a great piece of theatre today, making audiences think as well as laugh.