The play is only partially the thing at the production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” that constitutes the so-called “prologue season” of the renovated Globe Theater. Most observers, I assume, will be drawn as much by curiosity about the building itself a plaster-and-thatch structure built with unseasoned timber as they will by a lesser-known Shakespeare play generally remembered for featuring the Bard’s funniest dog.
Happily, the experience proves a delight on virtually every front, the mongrel Crab included. While the Globe looks unprepossessingly artificial from the outside, especially surrounded by a dreary cluster of buildings that weren’t there in Shakespeare’s day, the theater itself is a treat. Whether one is a “groundling” on his feet throughout or is seated on backless benches above (cushions can be rented), the theater induces a very real camaraderie that no amount of money can buy.
Early press reports told of heckling from the crowd in accordance with dubious notions about Elizabethan audiences. Instead (and thank heavens), my Sunday matinee cohorts bore the eager attentiveness associated with audiences at London’s annual classical music festival, the “proms.” This, one felt, was an assemblage that had come to listen as well as look. It’s to the credit of director Jack Shepherd, himself an actor, and his Anglo-American, mixed-race cast that they rarely let their public down.
No one would ever claim this “Two Gents” as the world’s most penetrating; it’s never as moving as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s last production of the play, in 1991. But it achieves any number of laudable aims that bode well for Globe artistic director Mark Rylance’s first full season next year. With Rylance in the pivotal role of Proteus, the production is clear and clean without seeming to play it safe. And though some of it could be faster and funnier, that makes little difference as one gazes in awe at nearly 1,400 rapt spectators once again filling the “wooden O.”
The actors have the task of navigating a sizable thrust stage while playing to the galleries above and to the “groundlings” in front. How the space will adapt to a more psychologically nuanced play there’s little that is delicate about the souring of affection in “Two Gents” remains to be seen. For the moment , the actors seem to be having a roaring good time, and they take the audience right along with them.
Rylance’s Proteus leans heavily on the vibrato in his early scenes, as he is “metamorphosed” by love for the same Julia (a rather dour Stephanie Roth) whom he later abandons for Silvia (Anastasia Hille). The workings of the plot couple Shakespearean cross-dressing and disguise with the violent mood changes that launch “The Winter’s Tale.” One minute, Proteus is a “spaniel-like” follower after Silvia the language recalls the comparably crossed young lovers in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” the next, a willing purveyor of treachery, perjury and bad puns. As befits a modern-dress staging, Rylance has a throwaway feel for the verse that seems contemporary and right while rising to Proteus’ protestations of love, regardless of who is their recipient.
The star is well partnered by Lennie James’ funky Valentine (the two exchange a shy “Hi” late in the play), a man humbled by the same love that turns Proteus hateful.
The set consists mostly of props a picnic hamper, some cafe tables while Claire van Kampen’s alternately Purcellian and bluesy original score plays above the action. For good measure, there are a band of outlaws and an angry Duke as well as the infamous Crab, canine sidekick to Proteus’ servant Launce (Jim Bywater). This has traditionally been Crab’s play, and so it threatens to become here, especially once Crab played by a 5-month-old border collie named Dennis starts chewing the straw onstage as if he were a horse. (Just wait till he sees “Babe.”)
But it’s not long before reason is restored and the play’s divisions are made one, a union Globe actors and audience will recognize since they have reached it , too.