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.