Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is an early comedy that foreshadows many of the elements to come in his more mature works. A young woman dresses as a young man, three men are in love with the same woman, a father stands in the way of true love, rings are exchanged and one is given inappropriately, and other elements that audiences had grown to expect.
Technically, this play is a “romance” (as opposed to farce or problem comedy). Some of it takes place in the woods where is found a band of brigands that might have been the inspiration for the overly scrupulous Pirates of Penzance some three centuries later.
At any rate, the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon gave a lively production of “Two Gentlemen” in 2014, and it can be seen on an Opus Arte DVD. I did not follow with a text, but I am sure that it is complete, including all of the silly banter between the clownish servants Speed (Martin Bassindale) and Launce (Roger Morlidge). Taking a chance, they use a live dog to play Crab (Mossup), who steals the scenes from Launce.
The young lovers are youthful enough. Proteus (Mark Arends) loves his Julia (Pearl Chanda) in Verona until he goes to see his best friend Valentine (Michael Marcus) in Milano and falls in love with his friend’s beloved Silvia (Sarah MacRae). But her father the Duke (Jonny Glynn) prefers the loutish Turio (Nicholas Gerard-Martin)…and so on.
The pacing is quick and the dialogue is well spoken (although the subtitles are most welcome); but now and then the cast is directed to shout at one another or the women to shriek with delight. This play is about witty speech, not histrionics.
And that is why I can’t see why the director decided to set the action in the 1960s. Watch the version shown as part of the BBC Complete Shakespeare television series to see how gorgeous the Renaissance costumes are and how perfectly the heightened language fits them. At the RSC, the costumes could not have been more boring. Proteus spends most of the play in slacks and a white shirt; Julia’s dress in the early scenes could not look shabbier; Turio, who should be a dandy, is given a faded colored sports jacket; and Silvia, invariably described as goddess-like, is first seen doing something like the twist in a plain dress. Shakespearian speech sounds wrong in 1960.
Still in all, if updating doesn’t bother you, the production is very much worth seeing.