July 25, 2006

The Two Noble Kinsmen @ The Swan Theatre

MAY 21ST 2006 (backdated)

I had to get a lift into Stratford and queue for day tickets for this one, the first real ‘event’ piece of the Festival. The RSC Touring Company, currently travelling with Greg Doran’s production of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, stopped off for one afternoon in Stratford to do this, a special event called ‘Sharing Sources’.

Eh? Well, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ is primarily based on one of Chaucer’s tales, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, which this company had been performing as part of ‘The Canterbury Tales’. The plan, then, was this- they would perform their version of ‘The Knight’s Tale’, and then follow it up with a rehearsed reading of ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’, and that way the audience could see how Shakespeare and Fletcher (his co-author for this play) adapted the material to their own play.

So, what we had was a four-part day:

1) An introduction by the director, William Oldroyd (assistant director on ‘The Canterbury Tales’)

2) A full performance of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ directed by Greg Doran

3) A rehearsed reading of ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ directed by William Oldroyd

4) A Q&A session

It was an informal affair- for the rehearsed reading, the company had only had about 20 hours rehearsal time. Set and costumes were all on a truck on the way to Canterbury (!) for the next performance too, so everyone was in their own clothes. During the first half, an actor’s mobile even went off onstage! It was really nice though- the RSC often works hard to come off as a well-oiled performance machine, which is very professional but distances the audience from the whole process. This, however, felt like cast and audience were all in it together- a case of “We’ll do our best, you put up with us”, and when things went wrong everyone laughed together. It’s possibly the first time I’ve had the feeling that I’m at a Festival rather than a string of performances.

‘The Knight’s Tale’ was excellent- I saw Part 2 of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ at Christmas, but ‘The Knight’s Tale’ was from Part 1 so it was a first for me. Fast and fun, and thanks to the modern narration from Christopher Saul’s Knight it was a good introduction to a story unfamiliar to most.

‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ was the revelation though. Although it had been billed as a rehearsed reading, it was still fully-blocked with fights and dances- the actors were still reading off scripts, but the entire play was acted and so was far better than I’d expected. The Schoolmaster and Baboon’s scenes were as funny as any full production, and Lisa Ellis as the Jailer’s Daughter gave a moving performance, singing in her madness as if a second Ophelia.

The chance to see the two versions of the story back to back was fascinating, too. Moments in both plays that corresponded to each other were staged in the same way in order to best bring out the differences- most strikingly (in an academic moment) during Alcite’s death scene- in ‘The Knight’s Tale’ he turned to Emilia, telling his love to marry his best friend, while in ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ he turned the opposite way to Palamon, asking his best friend to marry Emilia, who had no say in the matter, recalling ‘Two Gentlemen Of Verona’s’ similar exchange of a woman between two friends.

The Q & A section was a little disappointing. Oldroyd was most interested in hearing people’s opinions on the reading, as there’s the possibility of turning it into a full-scale production down the road. Most of the audience’s questions, however, seemed to revolve around which bits of the play Shakespeare wrote and whether his parts were better or not- so I think a real opportunity was lost to get into a discussion of performance possibilities.

As an event, the day was a complete success, and people seemed to really enjoy the chance to see two versions of the same story back to back. I for one took the time to chat to the director at the end and encourage him to push for a full-scale production, so hopefully down the line we may see it done ‘properly’. Even as a reading, though, it was a good production and a fantastic event.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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