Ah, the excesses of youth. It may be heresy to express outright dislike of any Shakespeare play, but let’s say that Two Gents is less well beloved than most. It’s a very early work (some argue, his very first play), and has its full share of tyro flaws: characters left onstage without lines, plot strands awkwardly woven together, and above all an effortful keenness to impress. Shakespeare has not only derived part of his plot from the work of John Lyly, but also imitated Lyly’s polished, patterned rhetoric. This may be the most off-putting element to modern tastes.
Simon Godwin makes his RSC directorial debut by mimicking the approach that serves him as an associate at the Royal Court: he treats the play as if it were new writing. It’s a perfectly sensible approach … in theory. In practice, four centuries’ worth of changing sensibilities keep getting in the way. Principally, you don’t make the flowery language clear and comprehensible by treating it as contemporary naturalistic prose. Modern pacing and cadences can on the contrary render it even less intelligible, especially when you have cast your entangled lovers from actors who are appropriately young but as yet lack the tricks to cheat in such matters. Compare Michael Marcus as Valentine with Jonny Glynn as his beloved Silvia’s father who refuses his suit: Marcus understands his lines, but delivering them as if they were written by April De Angelis doesn’t get that understanding across; whereas Glynn knows to insert enough actorly manner to retain the music of the verse and thus its rhythms of meaning, yet not enough to sound artificial.
The production has some muscle. Mark Arends as Valentine’s friend-turned-rival Proteus and Sarah Macrae as Silvia make decent fists of their oratorical lines, and while the idea of disguising a young woman as a boy was hardly as radical as some scholars claim (how could it have been, when the woman was played by a boy actor in the first place?), Pearl Chanda as Julia gets into her stride when she, well, gets into her strides. There is also the opportunity to go “Ahhh!” a lot at the stoic-faced Mossup the dog playing Crab the dog. But the uncertainties remain and culminate in an ending that eclipses even The Taming of the Shrew for arguable misogyny, and which Godwin stages with a timid neutrality.