The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Stratford Festival

We’d never seen The Two Gentlemen of Verona on stage and had no particular expectations, but it was easy to see that the Stratford Festival’s production was trying something new with it.  It worked well, and we thought it was a lot of fun.

Dean Gabourie

The plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is thin (even by the undemanding standards of Shakespeare comedies), the situations are formulaic, and some episodes don’t really have anything to do with the story.  Director Dean Gabourie’s bright idea was to suppose that Shakespeare conceived Two Gentlemen as a variety show, with song-and-dance numbers, comedy skits, animal acts, and scenes from well-known plays, and so on.  This sort of entertainment was apparently usual in the late sixteenth century, as it was 200 years later when Nicholas Nickleby joined Vincent Crummles’s troupe of players (see this recent Emsworth post; we’ve been reading Dickens) and through the vaudeville era (see this post). 

In this show the two young “gentlemen” and the women they love appear as vaudeville performers; the show opens with bosom friends Proteus (Gareth Potter) and Valentine (Dion Johnstone) dancing in striped suits, tophats, and canes.  Valentine is on his way to Milan to get on in life and make new friends; Proteus is content to stay in Verona because of his infatuation with Julia (Sophia Walker).  

Once in Milan, Valentine promptly falls for Silvia (Caire Lautier), whose father wants to bestow her on another man, the wooden Sir Thurio (Timothy Stickney).  When Proteus follows Valentine to Milan, he too falls in love with Silvia, forgetting all about Julia, with whom he exchanged rings before he left. 

In this show the story moves along briskly despite interspersed songs and comic vignettes from the gentlemen’s servants, Speed and Launce, whose dog Crab is played by a lethargic, short-legged, decidedly male beagle.  As a bonus, Mr. Gabourie throws in a melodramatic rendition of the murder of Desdemona from Othello, in which Timothy Stickney plays Sir Thurio playing Othello and Stacie Steadman plays Silvia playing Desdemona). This interpolation was purely Mr. Gabourie’s idea, but it’s undoubtedly Shakespearean (think of the play scene in Hamlet) and fully in the vaudeville tradition.

The entire cast is fine, but the characters we found the most fun were Julia’s mildly disrespectful maid (Trish Lindström), Silvia’s strutting, self-important father (John Vickery), the quipster Speed (Bruce Dow), who pronounces that “love is blind,” and the philosophical dog-owner Launce (Robert Persichini). 

Robert Persichini

Despite its vaudevillian trappings, this production gives us Shakespeare’s language in full flower, especially as it comes from the mouths of Ms. Walker (Julia has the most poetic lines in the play) and Mr. Persichini, who delivers the play’s wonderful comic monologues to the dog Crab.  (These really come alive in performance; the lines seem disjointed on the printed page.)  One of the things that make some of the Shakespeare comedies difficult for some people, including Emsworth, is that the jokes tend to be based on wordplay involving words that aren’t part of our vocabulary anymore.  But a reasonably acute playgoer is likely to “get” the puns and malapropisms of the comic characters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as when Launce refers tells us he has received his “proportion,” like the “prodigious son.”

Several years ago, here in Rochester, we saw a community theater version of Edward Albee’s bizarre play The Goat, or Who is Silvia?, which is about a man who falls in love with a goat.  We now realize for the first time that the title of the play was taken from a song Proteus sings under Silvia’s balcony, “Who Is Silvia.”  But we still don’t get the connection.

Shakespeare in Nicholas Nickleby

Macready as Shylock

We’ve spent a lot of time digging into Shakespeare in the years since we last read Nicholas Nickleby, and this time through the novel we paid a lot more attention to what Dickens said about Hamlet, Othello, and theater in general.

Dickens’s interest in Shakespeare was probably never higher than while he was writing Nickleby. Among other things, it was in 1838 that his close friend, the actor William Charles Macready, put on the first King Lear in two hundred years that actually used nothing but Shakespeare’s original text, with Lear’s fool restored to the play and without the “happy ending” that seventeenth- and eighteen-century directors had substituted for Shakespeare’s.  The novel’s episodes involving an ensemble of provincial touring players give us an idea of what was on Dickens’s mind, drama-wise, during this period of his life.

Nickleby let Dickens get in some licks about some of his pet peeves.  For instance, there was apparently a lot of nonsense passing for Shakespeare “criticism” in the 1830s, just as there is now. We meet, briefly, Mr. Curdle, who

had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, on the character of the Nurse’s deceased husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a ‘merry man’ in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow’s affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him.

One can only wonder what Dickens would have thought of some of the arcane titles of masters and doctoral theses being written today.

And there was apparently also misguided sentiment for Shakespearean actors of bygone days:

“It’s not as if the theatre was in its high and palmy days . . . the drama is gone, perfectly gone. . . . What man is there, now living, who can present before us all those changing and prismatic colours with which the character of Hamlet is invested?” exclaimed Mrs Curdle.

‘What man indeed — upon the stage,” said Mr Curdle, with a small reservation in favour of himself. “Hamlet! Pooh! ridiculous! Hamlet is gone, perfectly gone.”

William Hogarth's 1745 portrait of David Garrick as Richard III. Perhaps it was the Garrick era of Shakespearean acting that the Curdleses were nostalgic for.

Dickens and his friends at the Shakespeare Club, which was active during 1838 and 1839, must have passed at least some of their time making fun of drama purists who insisted that plays exhibit Aristotle’s “unities.” We couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Curdle’s notion of “the unities” wasn’t much different, or any more precise, from what devotees of a certain modern-day cult think and say about “diversity”:

“I hope you have preserved the unities, sir?” said Mr Curdle.

“The original piece is a French one,” said Nicholas. “There is abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, strongly-marked characters—”

“—All unavailing without a strict observance of the unities, sir,” returned Mr Curdle. “The unities of the drama, before everything.”

“Might I ask you,” said Nicholas, hesitating between the respect he ought to assume, and his love of the whimsical, “might I ask you what the unities are?”

Mr Curdle coughed and considered. “The unities, sir,” he said, “are a completeness—a kind of universal dovetailedness with regard to place and time—a sort of a general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression. I take those to be the dramatic unities, so far as I have been enabled to bestow attention upon them, and I have read much upon the subject, and thought much. . . . — I don’t know whether I make myself understood?”

“Perfectly,” replied Nicholas.

Dickens’s point, of course, was that great plays like Hamlet and Henry V, not to mention then-new plays like Victor Hugo’s Hernani, paid no regard to the “unities” whatsoever and succeeded because of their “abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, [and] strongly-marked characters.”

And Dickens clearly had affection for actors who went above and beyond in preparing to play their roles. As his character Vincent Crummles says,

“We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over. But that’s feeling a part and going into it as if you meant it; it isn’t usual; more’s the pity.”

Dickens presumably would have appreciated modern-day “method” actors like Robert Duvall and the late Marlon Brando who spend months immersing themselves first-hand in the culture of their characters.

We had failed to notice, until we saw it pointed out in this fine essay by Dr. Paul Schlicke, that the principal storyline in The Old Curiosity Shop resembles that of King Lear.  We can’t detect any such direct correlation between Nicholas Nickleby and a Shakespeare play.  Still, when we read the speech in chapter 61 in which Nicholas tells his sister Kate that the two of them will grow old as bachelor and old maid together (“But rich or poor, or old or young, we shall ever be the same to each other, and in that our comfort lies”), we felt certain we were hearing an echo of Lear’s wonderful speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”

And Dickens wrapped up this novel the same way that Shakespeare ended several of his plays: with arbitrary weddings for all the deserving characters. Dickens didn’t prepare us for the mating up of Miss La Creevy and old Tim Linkinwater any better than Shakespeare prepared us for the pairing of Paulina and old Camillo at the end of Winter’s Tale (still fresh in our mind from seeing this year’s wonderful production of that play in Stratford, Ontario; see this post).