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May 25, 2012

The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Two Gents Productions) @ Lakeside Arts Centre

Follow-up to Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe (Two Gents Productions) @ North Wall Oxford from The Bardathon

It's been two and a half years since I last saw Two Gents Productions perform their debut show, and a lot has changed in the meantime. I won't offer a full fresh review here as my last blog covers the important points, but it was a pleasure to see the company again and the show has remained as striking and innovative as ever, so it's well worth mentioning a few of the key changes.

Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu are currently performing the show in two versions - the original, primarily English version, and an all-Shona version written for the Globe to Globe festival. This occasioned a great deal of joking over missed cues and forgotten lines in tonight's performance, all of which fed into the community spirit of the production. This was an exercise in storytelling, beginning with the unpacking of a trunk and closing after the company had repacked all of its props, leaving only two loose ends - the glove and shawl representing Julia and Silvia. This closing scene lost some of the power I felt the Oxford performance had - in that scene, the two 'women' were left lying on the floor while Proteus and Valentine bartered them, an image that drew attention to the objectification of the women in this scenario. This time, the items of clothing were left hanging from a line, leaving the women silent but separate from the scene. The point remained clear though; this was the men's climax, with the women sidelined, and the closing image of the two women embracing left the production on a sober, sad note.

The interaction between Lance and Crab was changed this time, with Crab remaining happy and panting for both of their scenes while a white-faced Lance delivered his lines mournfully. In a pointed move, though, at the end of these scenes Crab stood upright and removed his collar, but his tongue continued panting as he turned into Proteus. Proteus and Crab temporarily shared the body of Munyevu, the former taking on the unrestrained characteristics of the latter. This was particularly brought out as Proteus began his attack on Silvia, removing the glove that signified her from Chikura's hand and licking it deeply. The sickening nature of this gesture, performed on an inanimate object, reminded me how invested I had become in the 'characters' represented by these objects, given personality through the simplicity of their use throughout the production.

I'm not sure how clear the story would have been to an audience unfamiliar with the play, particularly in the case of characters such as Thurio and Sir Eglamour, the latter becoming a taxi driver who offered to rape Silvia himself, standing over her and touching her menacingly from behind, before she fled. The threat offered to the women throughout was only hinted at in the earlier scenes as Julia and Lucetta gossipped together, but became more apparent as the women were left on the edges of the performance, hung on washing lines and denied a voice. This was something made even more apparent in the original production in the witch doctor sequence that allowed Julia to spy on Proteus; here, a more conventional overhearing scene reduced the sense of voyeurism, but arguably left Julia even more vulnerable in the presence of her betrayer. Conversely, the relationship between the two men was established more amicably at the start, with the two going through a long 'bye bye' routine that jokingly portrayed Valentine's deep affection for his friend.

The amiable interaction with the audience, including the Duke sitting among the crowd to pass judgement on Valentine, created a forgiving atmosphere throughout that allowed the actors to banter, especially in an amusing sequence where Chikura misplaced his Julia costume and Munyevu, feigning sleep, teased him mercilessly. The atmosphere of mutual enjoyment and ramshackle storytelling served the tale perfectly, making this - yet again - one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in the theatre for a while.

December 13, 2009

Two Gentlemen of Verona; or, Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe (Two Gents Productions) @ North Wall Oxford

Writing about web page

Two Gents Productions are a three-man company made up of performers Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu, and director Arne Pohlmeier. As their name suggests, the company was founded as a result of the trio's work on their devised production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, retitled Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe. While the company have since begun producing other work, 2009 saw their profile enormously raised with an extensive UK and international tour of their debut production, which played to full and enthusiastic houses around the world.

In "township" style, this two-man show was disarmingly informal. Forgotten lines or scenes that the actors claimed to be bored with were jettisoned, the action was frequently paused in order to check that the audience were keeping up (with an implied rebuke to the mother behind me who kept up a running commentary throughout for her two children), and at one point Chikura asked the lighting technician to fetch him a Coke.

This informality of approach was apparent from the start, as the actors strolled out on stage as themselves bearing a large trunk, welcomed the audience and introduced the play. In the intimate but still formally arranged surroundings of the North Wall, the audience at first struggled to interpret how to respond: an opening round of applause was greeted with a bemused bow by the performers, and the audience laughed politely at the jokes while shying away from the moments of suggest interaction. It was testament to the skill of the performers at handling their medium that the barriers between performers and audience were quickly broken down, however, to the extent that the actors occasionally had to good-humouredly tell audience members not to improvise their own lines.

A Prologue riffing on Romeo and Juliet established that "In fair Zimbabwe we lay our scene", although the production may more properly have been said to be set everywhere and nowhere. From a trunk, the performers pulled out a range of props and pieces of costume which were hung on a washing line at the back of the stage. While African culture, such as the use of a sanza for musical accompaniment, was visible throughout, any sense of a "real" location was suggestive only; the transparency of the storytelling techniques employed ensured that the co-existing realities of performers and characters were in continual dialogue with one another. We were to invest in Chikura and Munyevu, rather than Valentine or Proteus.

The production depended on a variety of items and objects to enable the multiple transformations of place and character which the two actors underwent. Thus, the underside of the trunk was slammed in order to formally end scenes, and single items of costume represented characters: braces for Valentine, an upturned collar for Proteus, a ripped arm-length glove for Silvia, a sarong for Julia, and so on. These items were donned with some ceremony, with Julia's self-indulgent sigh of pleasure in her appearance as the sarong was donned becoming something of a running joke. The ability of the actors to transform themselves was incredibly effective in its simplicity: as Munyevu became Sylvia, his voice rose a register and became softer; a benevolent smile flickered upon his face; and his focus softened, giving the character a dreamy aura. As Proteus, his shoulders hunched, his stance and voice hardened and his eyes looked piercingly at Valentine. While we were always aware first and foremost of the actors as themselves, the subtleties of expression and gait allowed the characters to be effectively differentiated, the audience following the shifts even when characters passed from one actor to another: thus, as Munyevu removed Silvia's glove and passed it to Chikura, so too were Sylvia's distinctive mannerisms and tics adapted by Chikura, the audience following the character along with the physical indicator of their presence. This was used to great comic effect in Julia's disguise as Sebastian, with multiple items of costume layered on each other; and even more complicatedly as Speed explained Silvia's letter-writing conceit to a befuddled Valentine. Realising that neither Valentine nor the audience had any idea what he was talking about, Speed "stopped" the play, and proceeded to re-perform Valentine and Silvia himself, while reminding the audience "I'm still Speed, by the way", explaining the action through a series of performances concealed within his own performance.

The objects that represented characters came to bear remarkable resonance in their own right. At times when more than two characters were required, the actors would often give props to members of the audience, casting them in that role and then directing the action towards them, most entertainingly at one point when the swaggering Turio's jacket was gifted to one gentlemen who was then subjected to an energetic tirade from Valentine. The objects gradually began to take on a life that existed independently of their animation; thus, in one fight scene, the fight was conducted as a comic beating up of a piece of clothing, while the other actor responded remotely to the pain at the other side of the stage. More interestingly, in the final act, Silvia and Juila were often no more than their empty objects, lying on stage as Valentine and Proteus fought over them. The objectification of the women in their discourse was thus literally figured on the stage, the women becoming wordless prizes unable to defend or speak for themselves.

The comedy of the production often came from unexpected places. Lance and Crab, here even more irrelevant to the main plot than usual, were relatively static, Chikura's Lance simply holding a leash and collar attached to Munyevu, who stood with arms folded and tongue panting. Lance responded to being shown up by tightening the leash gradually until Crab's eyes bulged. In their subsequent scene, Crab sat moodily at the edge of the stage, staring fixedly into the distance with chin on fist. Lance's speeches were themselves spoken straight, though with audience members asked to provide the shoes representing his parents. The comedy here came more from the subversion of expectations of farce, with the moody Crab surprisingly captivating in his human sulk. Elsewhere, the comedy was more obvious; Julia and Lucetta's scene took place in an imagined bathroom, with both actors miming the concealment of Julia's modesty, and Lucetta herself was made up of comically exaggerated mannerisms and affectations that spoke of the servant's irreverent attitude towards her mistress.

In a nice touch, Julia's overhearing of Proteus's wooing of Silvia was recast as a visit to a witch doctor, who "conjured" an image of Proteus. The two actors then leaped onto a platform to perform as Turio and Proteus, before jumping back to ground level to speak as Julia and the witch doctor. Chikura's comic songs as both Valentine and Turio, consisting usually of the words "Silvia, Silvia, Silvia" sung repeatedly or of pastiches of more recent songs (notably Valentine's lamenting rendition of "Lonely, I am so lonely"), were highlights, and countered nicely by the tuneful melodies of Proteus. Most of the comedy came from the actors as themselves, whether Chikura forgetting his lines as the Duke on the news of Valentine's love for Silvia and instead improvising deliberately mundane dialogue ("Oh no. I am shocked"), or the apology for use of the word "codpiece" in front of the young children in the third row and Chikura's explanation that "It's a fish". Most impressive was a bravura piece of physical comedy in the depiction of the banditti, in which three members of the audience were dragged on stage and treated as human puppets, the actors waving their victims' arms around in increasingly expressive movements to match their ventriloquised dialogue, while the puppets themselves creased up with laughter.

All this comedy served to underscore a rather more serious undertone. Proteus and Valentine were barely friendly even in their opening scene, displaying clear resentment of each other's choices; already, these were friends who had grown apart. Valentine's welcome of Proteus to court was cold and stand-offish, while Proteus's arrogant demeanour suggested open animosity. As Proteus worked his plans against Valentine, he took increasing glee in their success. In the forest, however, all pretences were dropped. His attempted rape of Silvia was exactly that. Munyevu threw Chikura's Silvia to the ground and advanced threatening on her as she cowered, slowly but deliberately forcing her legs apart and lowering himself. At this point, and with no laughter, Chikura removed the glove, left it at Munyevu's feet and made his way to the other side of the stage to 'appear' as Valentine, interrupting the rape. Valentine's anger at Proteus was manifest, and their reaffirmation of friendship was anything but; the offer of Silvia was made with deep sarcasm and loathing, a furious and scathing damnation of Proteus's actions; and Proteus's acceptance of Julia shortly thereafter was a shamefaced step-down on Proteus's part, the only way out of the predicament into which he had put himself.

Throughout this, the women lay on the floor as objects; yet after the Duke's closing words, the play had its final trick to play. The actors resumed the sarong and glove of Julia and Silvia, and the latter was discovered, weeping and bruised on the floor. Julia moved to her, took her head in her lap and began comforting her, the lights (which had been set to a single state throughout) fading on their embrace of solidarity. The sobriety and theatricality of this final moment, in contrast to the transparency and good humour elsewhere in the production, ended the play on a deadening note of condemnation of both Valentine and Proteus, human kindness forgotten in their selfish and myopic actions. It was perhaps not the comic conclusion we might have expected, but one which fitted the community-rooted motivations behind this production. Laughter gave way to a severe reading of the play that was all the more effective for the irreverence and mockery of what had come before. An entertaining and expertly-performed production, that achieved more with a shoe-string budget than most established companies.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

March 25, 2007

Before the Bardathon

As we enter the final week of my year-long project, I’m going to be posting a few retrospective entries in addition to the final couple of reviews. First up, I thought for interest I’d mention my PREVIOUS Shakespeare theatre-going.

I haven’t been attending the theatre as long as many people think. Being a Northerner born-and-bred, and not having a lot of money at that, my theatregoing ability was severely restricted until I started university five and a half years ago. Even since then, it’s only been a couple of years since I really discovered Stratford and started going regularly, and my experience of Shakespearean performance in London is also somewhat limited. What I HAVE done, however, is read and study performance history extensively, which has helped me catch up in no small part on the productions I’ve missed. In addition, I’ve watched pretty much every screen production I can get my hands on.

So, before the Complete Works, what have I seen? A good few productions still, though my memory of them fails in several places. For interest, then, here’s what I have seen:

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC 2005, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Aside from a big tree, a very VERY dull production of ‘As You Like It’ by Dominic Cooke. Some nice moments, but from the Circle the production died a slow and painful death in the second act, which was far longer than the first, and simple wasn’t funny apart from Paul Chahidi’s Touchstone.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (RSC 2005, dir. Nancy Meckler, at the RST)

Hysterical and highly acclaimed, as well as introducing me to the talents of Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger as the Dromios. Fast, funny and exactly how an ‘Errors’ should be.

HAMLET (RSC 2004, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I don’t remember much of this, apart from a few single moments. I do remember, however, Toby Stephens’ Hamlet being pretty damned good!

HENRY V (WUDS 2002 at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

A student production- very low budget, but lively and, particularly in the memorable scenes involving the four soldiers of different nationalities, quite funny too. An all-female cast was the main innovation.

KING JOHN (RSC 2001, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Swan)

Memorable mostly for a spectacular fall from the upper balcony for Arthur, and for the spectacular use of flags and symbols. Generally a very good production, though I enjoyed the 2006 production better.

JULIUS CAESAR (WUDS 2002/3? at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Notable for being the last (I believe) non-musical student production to be staged in the main theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Solid performances all round, a good use of stage space and innovative use of hand-held cameras for the war scenes made this a very interesting production.

MACBETH (Theatre Babel 2002?, at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Not the greatest ‘Macbeth’, but a fantastic set of dangling swords that descended to ground level and were a constant reminder of the ever-present threat.

MACBETH (RSC 2004, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Bizarrely, all I can remember of this production is the England scene, particularly Clive Wood’s Macduff. I seem to remember enjoying it, however.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC 2005, dir. Gregory Doran, at the RST)

Truly magical, and only bettered by Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’. Spectacular use of scenery, puppets and physical movement made this a true joy to watch, along with Malcolm Storry’s excellent Bottom and yet another hysterical performance by Paul Chahidi as Quince. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ will remain with me forever.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC, 2006, at Warwick Arts Centre)

I can’t find anything anywhere about this event, which was performed for one night only at Warwick Arts Centre as part of a tour. Part concert, part performance, it saw a major orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, while RSC actors performed the play between the beautiful score. While necessarily heavily limited by a tiny stage space and the concert format, this was a very fun version of the play, with excellent conflict between the lovers in particular and a superb orchestra playing the most famous Shakespearean music there is. Unfortunately, the evening was coloured by the fact my back collapsed and I had to be taken home by an ambulance afterwards…...

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (WUDS 2004?, dir. Ben Fowler, at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

An interesting ‘Much Ado’, with spectacularly staged overhearing scenes and some interesting things to say about the play. Variable performances, but overall an interesting production.

OTHELLO (Cheek By Jowl 2004, dir. Declan Donnellan, at Riverside Studios London)

One of those divisive productions which people either loved or hated. Seeing it in traverse in London helped, I believe, but still I disliked the slow-talking Iago who seemed to have little control over his actions. However, the cast in general were excellent and the brutal murder of Desdemona, picking her up by the neck, was truly shocking.

SIR THOMAS MORE (RSC 2005, dir. Robert Delamere, at the Swan)

A highly enjoyable production that first introduced me to Nigel Cooke, who was similarly excellent in ‘Pericles’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ this season. Violent and exciting, a production which made a very strong case for the increased study in the theatre of this play.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (RSC Touring Company 2000, dir. Lindsay Posner, at Epic Leisure Centre, Ellesmere Port)

A fascinating induction, setting the play in modern day with Sly surfing for porn on the internet and eventually stumbling across an online video of the play. After that, a very funny production that still stays in the mind despite the relatively long time since and my unfamiliarity with it. Still the only RSC touring production I’ve seen.

THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare’s Globe 2000, dir. Lenka Udovicki, at the Globe)

My only experience of the Globe, and an interesting production- with a memorably ethereal Ariel who left the auditorium through the audience, a violent Caliban who kept the crowd laughing with his constant swearing at the overhead planes, and Vanessa Redgrave as an interesting Prospero.

TWELFTH NIGHT (RSC 2005, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I remember much favourable about this production, mostly the comedians- Forbes Masson, Andrew Mackay and Clive Wood winding up Richard Cordery’s Malvolio to perfection, before going on to greater things in the History plays this year. However, I hated this at the time- overall it was sloppy and dull, with awful performances from Viola, Olivia and Sebastian in particular. Lots of interest, lots of style, but very few laughs and an ultimately dull reading.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (RSC 1998, dir. Edward Hall, at the Swan)

And finally, the first Shakespeare I ever saw. This picture is the only bit I really remember- a very funny Crab and Launce, who stay in my mind over nine years later. The Swan has remained one of my favourite theatres over the years too, and it’s nice to think back this far, to the start of my RSC viewing, and still be able to recall little things about a play.

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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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