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.