Richard Lutz is in two minds about the latest RSC offering at Stratford on Avon.
Not a bad time to take in a bit of late Shakespeare on the week that experts say Kit Marlowe was a major collaborator on many of his early plays.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is an accepted partnership with another writer, John Fletcher. He was already a successful scribbler and seen at the time as a successor to the seasoned Shakespeare when this play was written in 1613.
So two hands, two minds knock out this roistering potboiler. Some see it as Shakespeare’s last staged words as he soon retired back to Stratford where he died three years later.
What makes this hodgepodge of a script important is that the pair staged the play to re-launch The Globe Theatre after it was burned down. There must have been a terrific pride and faith in the production at the time. It must been a symbolic handing over of the magic quill from an old master to his younger successor.
Shakespeare’s fingerprints are all over it. The duke and duchess are Theseus and Hippolyta (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), there are three witches (from Macbeth), a lovelorn ingenue who goes mad (Hamlet) and a woodland interlude of rubes entertaining the royal court (Midsummer Night’s Dream again).
So what of this 2016 production at The Swan in Stratford on Avon?
It is part museum piece. And when you see in the programme the phrase “rarely performed”, it should send alarm bells clanging. It was last staged in Stratford, in fact, at The Swan 30 years ago when the theatre first opened its doors. It’s your typical mid-Jacobean dark tragi-comedy with the inevitable gore-fest at the end.
The plot? Two Theban cousins are jailed after Athens wins a war. While in prison they see the duke’s sister in a garden (as you do) and both fall in love with her. It all ends bloodily, badly, a cobble-together of a script with Shakespeare’s dense literate writing jammed up with Fletcher’s light touch to get the story moving.
Jamie Wilkes and James Corrigan are the stud-muffin cousins laughing, duelling and fighting their way through the narrative, good macho lads with a firm handle on their roles. Danusia Samal is the jailer’s daughter who goes round the bend. She has a lovely voice as she sings her way to madness. And a vibrant turn from Frances McNamee as Emilia, Theseus’s quirky sister, who is the object of desire.
Interestingly, there is a a lot of metrosexual banter and coupling, both straight and gay, enough, in fact, to turn a Belfast baker’s face puce with rage.
But the banter, the sexual play, the action is just not enough to make it a good night out.There’s too much verbal jousting and exposition. It needs more editing to pack a punch for a modern audience. But seen as possibly Shakespeare’s last squiggles with a quill, an intriguing play to contemplate.
At the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 7th February. Box office: 01789 403493.