The tragicomedy of eros

Two Noble Kinsmen | The Globe, London
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The Independent Culture

Mark Rylance, the Globe's artistic director, has claimed that in a hundred years' time The Two Noble Kinsmen will be one of the Bard's most performed works. If so, it has some catching up to do. Though chosen to open Stratford's Swan Theatre in the mid-Eighties, this collaboration between Shakespeare, at the end of his career, and his up-and-coming colleague John Fletcher is still cobwebbed with neglect. Knocking the dust off it now is Tim Carroll, whose shrewd, strongly directed revival makes a persuasive case for an oddly compelling play whose virtues have been overlooked because of the distractions of the dual authorship question.

Mark Rylance, the Globe's artistic director, has claimed that in a hundred years' time The Two Noble Kinsmen will be one of the Bard's most performed works. If so, it has some catching up to do. Though chosen to open Stratford's Swan Theatre in the mid-Eighties, this collaboration between Shakespeare, at the end of his career, and his up-and-coming colleague John Fletcher is still cobwebbed with neglect. Knocking the dust off it now is Tim Carroll, whose shrewd, strongly directed revival makes a persuasive case for an oddly compelling play whose virtues have been overlooked because of the distractions of the dual authorship question.

Based on Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, the piece dramatises the conflicting claims of love and friendship, sex and duty through the experiences of Palamon and Arcite. Devoted friends until, in captivity in Athens, each falls in love with the beautiful Emilia, the sister-in-law of Duke Theseus, they are then promptly transformed into deadly foes. Portraying a world where love amounts to little more than unreciprocated infatuation resulting in madness and death, the play subjects its characters to the balefully nonsensical whims of chance.

The production opens stunningly with a blizzard of confetti and the wedding procession of Theseus and Hippolyta carving its amorous, exhibitionist way at knife-point throught the crowd. The rousing nuptial jollity is abruptly halted by the shock appearance of three widowed Queens in mourning black, demanding justice for their unburied husbands. That pattern of a ritual suddenly and rudely interrupted is repeated throughout this bleakly no-win tragicomedy where, even at the eleventh hour, news of a fatal riding accident can capriciously overturn our sense of who is the nominal victor in the central love rivalry.

Carroll handles the tricky tonal balance of the ceremonial, the sardonic and the impassioned with laudable skill. Playing the eponymous kinsmen, an excellent Jasper Britton and Will Keen manage to come across as both dangerous obsessives and endearing chumps, awkwardly trapped in extremist postures that it's almost an almost comic strain for them to sustain. They are deliciously funny in the scene where the two ex-friends solicitously arm each other for their duel, becoming so absorbed in their little fashion parade ("How do I look?"), that they almost forget that it's one another they are dressing to kill. Vivid, sensual and uninhibited, Kate Fleetwood is equally fine as their low-life female counterpart in monomania: the jailer's daughter who veers into an obscene Ophelia-like derangement from unrequited love of Palamon. And lowering overall, like some starkly premonitory reminder of death, is the giant skull of the horse that will be involved in the climactic calamity.

You may not come away feeling that you've seen a lost masterpiece, but it certainly convinces you that The Two Noble Kinsmen deserves to be re-examined on our stages at least as often as that early Shakespearean play about love and friendship, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

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