White Bear Theatre, June 9- 27 2015
Richard Blackman – Palamon
Cavan Clarke – Arcite
Robert Harding - Pirithous/Wooer/Gentleman
Lanna Joffrey - Hippolyta/ Woman/Doctor
Roanna Lewis - Emilia
Simon Mitelman - Theseus/Jailer/Gentleman
Amy Tobias - Jailer’s Daughter
David Cottis – Director
Zoe Hammond – Designer
Joshua Sung - Lighting
Everythingtheatre – 4 stars.
Tucked away in the quiet White Bear Theatre, Instant Classics have revived Shakespeare’s oft neglected work, The Two Noble Kinsmen. One of his lesser known plays, I must admit that I was a little dubious of the portrayal, having sat through one or two overly pretentious small productions of the bard’s work in my time. I came away from this performance, however, feeling as though I had discovered a hidden gem buried in the London Fringe scene. With some superb performances, and a simple, no nonsense approach to a very elaborate script, I would heartily recommend you take a trip to witness this unexpected brilliance.
A dark tragicomedy, the Jacobean tale explores the lives of two cousins; Arcite and Palamon. The Theban soldiers are inseparable, and vow to remain so after their capture and imprisonment by Theseus, Duke of Athens. Of course, no work of Shakespeare would be complete without a woman to feud over. Enter Emilia, who steals the hearts of both cousins, unwittingly pitting them against each other for the first time in their lives in a tale that’s destined to end in tears.
In this simplistic representation, it was the acting chops that really set the piece above the rest. The confident cast were flawless, and had no trouble bringing the archaic script to life, something that many seasoned actors struggle with. A particular highlight was the work of Amy Tobias, whose depiction of the Jailer’s Daughter was both touching and hilarious. She really gave a sense of modernity to her loved up character, despite the flowery language, striking the perfect balance between contemporary and traditional. Of course, I must also mention the portrayal of the two title characters, both of which were faultless. Palamon’s intense personality was brought to life wonderfully by Richard Blackman, who played off Cavan Clarke’s rather cheeky Arcite superbly. I was particularly impressed with their fight scenes. Despite the intimacy of the performance, the combats were choreographed to perfection – not an easy feat in such close quarters.
As for the staging, the Spartan set up perfectly epitomised the simple yet effective nature of the performance. A few painted black and white fabric strips adorning the walls showed that there was no need for any fancy distractions in this production, as the content really spoke for itself. I wholeheartedly enjoyed this wonderful production. Instant Classics is certainly on to a winner here!
Victorian essayist Thomas de Quincey described it as “perhaps the most superb work in the language”. More recently, scholar Paul Edmonson in his new, highly readable introduction to Shakespeare says the play is “as innovative as anything Shakespeare ever produced”.
But for centuries, the consensus view was that The Two Noble Kinsmen was a weak collaboration that should never be performed, denying audiences access to a play that more than The Tempest can claim to include the final words Shakespeare wrote.
Director David Cottis, staging what the programme tells us is “the first major London production since 2000” cuts the text adeptly and whips the pace along to bring out the high drama of the plot, laugh-out-loud comedy and resonance of the quintessentially Shakespearean themes:- Is human nobility skin deep? Is love entirely random and as cruel a force as war?
The positive result of the dearth of performances is that we experience the refreshing joy of not knowing what comes next. Instead, our minds race with all sorts of possible outcomes and we are genuinely moved by the one we get.
If there is a conspicuous absence in this production, it is the lack of a developed sub-plot unless you count the jailer’s daughter and she has a strong claim to being part of the main line of action.
In an uncelebrated play, it’s a celebrated part. A bright-eyed Amy Tobias engages unflinchingly with the audience, portraying the character as a natural, honest combination of innocence and earthiness, irresistible to everyone except the blinded noble kinsmen.
Their volatile, love-hate relationship is a microcosm of the hot-blooded folly of mankind in general. One minute, they are inseparable friends, the next, the two soldiers, barely recovered from an unjust war, are ready to fight to the death over a woman.
The woman Emilia (Roanna Lewis), like us, finds it hard to prefer one to the other. One minute Richard Blackman’s tough, wiry Palamon is the most noble; the next Cavan Clarke’s burly yet gentle Arcite has our vote.
Attempting to steer a reasoned way through the dilemmas, Simon Mitelman is a solid Theseus and, in an effective piece of doubling, he is also the jailer to make the point that in this quasi police state no-one is truly free.
As the final powerful wisdom of Shakespeare, The Two Noble Kinsmen leaves us with the thought that our wishes always go awry and the sane response is acceptance of an outcome of which we are not the sole author.
The Public Reviews – 3 1/2 stars
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
The rear wall of a bare black stage is hung with banners of white cloth daubed with black paint, abstract symbols of the autocratic power of Theseus, duke of Athens. The two noble kinsmen, Palamon and Arcite, are his prisoners, and the best of friends until they see a beautiful young woman in the courtyard below their window. In a blood red gown, Emilia would catch anyone’s attention in this otherwise colourless world but both cousins fall instantly and madly in love with her, and fall out with each other. The suddenness of this rivalry would be comic were it not for its bitterness. Each now swears to spill the other’s blood and claim Emilia for himself. This production’s starkly effective opening is achieved with some judicious cuts, and in a running time of just over two hours reaches a moving climax, with perhaps the last lines Shakespeare ever wrote for the stage.
Cavan Clarke and Richard Blackman are excellent as Arcite and Palamon. Each creates a distinct character, and both are convincing as men who are first bound together in friendship and then sundered by their love for a woman. They go from being buddies to knocking seven bells out of each other in some bruising fight scenes. There’s nothing contradictory here: male psychology is well adapted both to forming coalitions to achieve goals that can be shared and to competing for prizes that cannot be shared.
While the male gaze gets this tragedy underway, it’s soon joined by its female equivalent, with the remarkable and unnamed character of the Jailer’s Daughter, played brilliantly by Amy Tobias. Like Phoebe pining for Orlando, she too has fallen for someone hopelessly out of reach. She has no chance of marrying either of the princes, but indulges in the fantasy anyway: ‘It is a holiday to look on them. Lord, the difference of men!’ Here is an echo of Goneril and Lady Macbeth, and of all women who discriminate between men in seeking the best possible partner.
Her story of unrequited love is the play’s tragicomic subplot, with echoes of Ophelia and a similar trajectory towards mental breakdown. Unlike Ophelia, the Jailer’s Daughter has several long soliloquies in which she gives voice to her predicament with great wit and insight. She knows that to marry Palamon is ‘hopeless’ and to be his whore ‘witless’ but ‘what a coil he keeps’ in her heart. And again unlike Ophelia, hers is not just a passive role. She takes a great risk and ventures a daring plan to win her man.
This can seem a strange play, with its sudden reversals and archaic setting in a world where Mars and Venus are invoked and sacrifices made before their altar, and where there’s endless talk of nobility and honour. However, human nature doesn’t get much more basic than two men fighting over a woman and a woman choosing between two men, and there is much that is made familiar to a modern audience by this production.