This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Two Gents Productions, dir. by Arne Pohlmeier, 9 May 2012 at The Globe, London
By Penelope Woods, Queen Mary University of London / The Globe
With a thud the trapdoor on the Globe stage was flung open and a head appeared. Denton Chikura gazed in Miranda-esque wonder at the strange theatrical shore he had washed-up on. Its diverse and colourful population returned his gaze expectantly. The other half of the Two Gents, Tonderai Munyevu, appeared moments later to help manoeuvre a large, blue, well-travelled trunk up onto the stage.
The acknowledgment of the setup of this visiting production blown temporarily onto the Thames Bankside for two performances as part of Globe to Globe’s whirlwind festival was delightfully inclusive and it set the tone of the production as one of shared endeavour. Chikura and Munyevu unpacked bits of costume from the trunk and hung these on a rope tied between the pillars flanking the Globe’s central ‘discovery space’. There were two actors, some pieces of costume and a bare stage. Their storytelling and our imaginations would fashion this afternoon’s entertainment.
‘Two Gentlemen…’ Chikura began, ‘both alike in friendship..’. There was a smattering of laughter. This was probably the relief laughter that has been a feature of this polyglot festival, when the non-Shona (or Bengali, Polish, Juba Arabic etc.) speaking members of the audience are surprised to have their linguistic comprehension bridged by the odd crumb of English. But it was also surprise laughter because this was the wrong play. (Romeo and Juliet will be performed at the end of the week by Brazilian company Grupo Galpão.) This teasing error was also indicative. Two Gents Productions, directed by Arne Pohlmeier, have a playful and inclusive approach to Shakespearean performance that in no way belies their simultaneously serious and profound engagement with the plays. This new translation, by Zimbabwean playwright Noel Marerwa, drew on very traditional Shona. Chikura and Munyevu had to learn entirely new words they had never come across before (particularly for the sea-related imagery in the play, since Zimbabwe is a land-locked country). This, then, has some crossover with modern British actors’ experience with the more unfamiliar aspects of the language of Shakespeare’s plays. (See the interviews with Director Arne Pohlmeier and actors Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu below for further insights into their experience putting this project together.)
Munyevu stepped in to frame the story so far in English and Chikura translated this prologue into Shona. This was the only piece of interpretation I had seen so far at the Globe to Globe Festival and represented the commitment to sharing this story in an inclusive way. Munyevu introduced himself as Proteus, his friend as Valentine, about to embark on a journey. Picking the story up in Shona the friends segued into the first scene.
The friends discussed Proteus’ love for Julia, and Munyevu took a patterned shawl and draped it around the neck of a lady standing in the yard. Audience members’ heads moved from the two friends on-stage back to ‘Julia’, the love interest, in the yard. Valentine was off to Milan. He listed names of great cities that those of us unfamiliar with Shona could nevertheless recognise: Harare, Buenos Aires, London, Paris. This was a play about being caught between the horizon-expanding education offered by travel and multiculturalism and the tensions of local identity and love — these issues may not be unfamiliar to Chikura and Munyevu themselves as Zimbabwean actors living in London and touring internationally — Proteus, on the other hand, has stayed behind to woo Julia in Verona. The friends parted with the fond and repetitive farewelling of lovers and Chikura removed Valentine’s travelling cloak and re-emerged in the waistcoat of the servant Speed. “Speed!”, Proteus called, “Speed!”. Having kept the names from the original in this translation there was further crossover humour available at this unspeedy servant. The friends’ names — Valentine, the lover, and Proteus, the fickle shape-shifter — offered their own hermeneutic mediation in the performance text.
The Two Gents production tells this story through just these two extraordinarily talented and, as they boast in the course of afternoon, ‘elastic’ performers who take on the roles of the gentlemen, Valentine and Proteus; their lovers, Silvia and Julia; their servants, Speed, Launce and Lucetta; a father, a landlady, the Duke of Milan, two rival lovers, some outlaws and a dog. A feature of this early play, which has been put down to ‘immature’ writing, means that much of the play is composed of dialogue requiring only two speakers on-stage. Other characters who are present during these scenes, but only intermittently speaking, were handily but not always explicitly, represented by the dangling scraps of costume. There are a few notable, and consequently interesting, exceptions.
The Gents’ strategies in response to these exceptions offer insights into how dramatic fiction works. The manifestation of Julia by wrapping a scarf around a member of the audience was not merely semiotic. The audience member didn’t just ‘stand in’ for Julia but she actually ‘was’ Julia while she was wearing the scarf. The same strategy was used for Thurrio, Silvia’s hapless suitor. The role of these characters in the narrative at this point requires them either to be objectified (the distant un-attained love object) or to be mutely bewildered in the face of Valentine and Silvia’s knowing mockery. These are both roles that coerced audience members play naturally and very successfully! The numerous outlaws who ambush Valentine in the forest in Act 4 required a few more audience members. These were selected by Munyevu from the groundlings and led up on stage where they were effectively deployed as puppets. The characterization of these ‘outlaws’ and their plot-device function in the play is so thin that this performance strategy rather served to emphasise the mutuality of both audience and performer imaginative endeavor and humorous indulgence. The other key exception is the final scene, to be discussed shortly.
There is much that is gloriously funny in the production, in what can sometimes seem a fairly arbitrary and loosely-held together play. Chikura announces we are “now in Milan” with a straightforward functionalism (to an extent that elaborate set change overdoes these lightning displacements) that is also playful. Silvia and Eglamour, on the other hand, arrive at the forest to find Valentine by ‘taxi’ (the opened blue trunk). The production has the only genuinely amusing ‘dog’ scene that I’ve seen. Munyevu, himself, plays Launce’s dog ‘Crab’. His dumb/sweet panting, while Launce castigates him for being surly and unfeeling by comparison with his parents’ fond farewells, was hilarious in its sheer ‘dogginess’. Crab’s sidelong glances, that we might be tempted to read as indications of boredom or resignation (can a dog ‘do’ sardonic?), were funny because of the act of anthropomorphising the response of a dog played by a man.
There were great songs in this otherwise music-free production which functioned both in terms of narrative and in terms of atmosphere to offer something that was shared by the audience on various levels. Both lovers have a duet with their beloved in this production. This was jubilant and tender, in the case of Proteus and Julia. Valentine, on the other hand, began a scene singing and when Silvia entered she joined in, almost instinctively, pointing up their harmonious compatibility. Thurrio’s attempts to woo Silvia with old-fashioned sonnets, by contrast, indicated that this union could never work.
The stripped-back practice and aesthetic of this production, the two-man company, the prop-lite, minimal costuming setup, has the hallmarks of South African township theatre and is very much at home on the Globe stage. The audience is always acknowledged and negotiated, sometimes playfully, sometimes tenderly, sometimes combatively. After a long, heated passage about the delivery of love letters, Munyevu turns to us and says “You don’t understand, do you?”. The audience laughs in sudden relief. Lots of us don’t understand. Munyevu appraises us, and then turns, with some disdain, to the electronic boards at the sides of the stage that have been showing snippets of scene synopsis. “Those aren’t going to help you!”, he exclaims mockingly, and having acknowledged what a tough time the non-speaking Shona audience are having but how very keen they are to understand, Munyevu laughs wickedly and says, “and I shan’t either”. The Gents carry on in Shona. However, at a certain point they explicitly ‘rewind’ to try to re-tell the sequence of actions where Valentine, Speed and Silvia exchange multi- and fictionally- authored love letters in an elaborate act of literary courtship that can be bewildering in the straightest of English-language productions.
The final scenes offered the most interesting and problematic of the strategies to represent multiple characters. Act 5 scene 4 includes the attempted rape of Silvia by Proteus in the forest, observed by Julia-as-Sebastian, and interrupted by Valentine. Initially Chikura played Silvia and Munyevu was Proteus. Silvia was characterized in the production by a white glove (a rich signifying device in the play since gloves ‘act’ as amorous tokens, go-betweens and the source of mishap and amorous confusion). As Proteus seized Silvia, in the person of Chikura, Chikura wriggled out of the glove to return as Valentine startling his friend in this moment of aggression. Munyevu was left assaulting the glove. The sudden rendering of ‘Silvia’ as a helpless shred of fabric at this point was poignant but potentially problematic. The de-physicalization at the point of climax in this scene may feel like a convenient escape from this problematic ending. However, the bathos of the play’s comedic ending where the friendship is restored and everyone ends up with the right partner was beautifully served by this tactic of suddenly deflated aggression. As audience members described afterwards, while the production was mordantly funny it achieved a tenderness and gravity at the end that was profoundly affecting, moving several audience members to tears.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is a travelling play. The two friends ‘of Verona’ travel to Milan, as part of an education sought by seeing the world and meeting new people. The Globe programme describes the Two Gents production as Harare/London, recognising the peripatetic and diaspora nature of these Gents from Zimbabwe who live in London. Interculturalism, the Globe to Globe festival proposes, is a good thing. But it is the displacement of the two friends to Milan, their separation from friend and lover in Verona and encountering of other societies and eligible women that threatens this friendship. Proteus’ betrayal of Valentine, which Munyevu tells me has audiences elsewhere interjecting and telling him (in character) that he is a ‘bad man’, is the lynchpin of the play’s significance. Valentine declares: “I must not trust thee more but count the world a stranger/ the private wound is deepest”. The emphasis on the local and local loyalties is provocative and intriguing in the midst of this celebration of the global. In the play’s ever-so-slightly unbelievable tying up of the threads and parceling out of equal shares of happiness at the end we are left to reflect on the feasibility of the assertion of the last line: “One feast, one house, one mutual happiness” and its contemporary resonance at the Globe house. The Globe ‘vibratorium’ continues to process and encompass thirty-seven countries’ performances, interpretations, languages, memories, jokes and audiences, and this production was a simultaneously jubilant and incisive opportunity to reflect on the possibilities of unity and mutuality.
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Want to know what other audience members thought of the production? Listen below to interviews with some of them:
Listen below to interviews with each of the actors, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
Here’s what others are saying: