The darker brother of A Midsummer Night's Dream (with which this production plays in repertory), The Two Gentlemen of Verona similarly mocks the absurd and arbitrary nature of young love, but doesn't spare us its ugliness and pain. Whereas, in Shakespeare's later comedy, Demetrius has spurned Helena before the action starts, and Lysander can blame that magic fairy juice for his misdirected affections, in this one, Proteus not only plays Julia false before our eyes (and hers) but is so ungentlemanly as to try to rape his best friend's girl. It's a harder play to like, but the talented director, Rachel Kavanaugh, manages the business about as sensitively as, I suppose, it can be done.
Perhaps, though, it could be even more palatable if the actor in the part seemed to be suffering from not only love but dementia - his instant passion for Silvia seems to suggest as much, as does his blindness to the fact that Julia, in men's clothing but no other disguise (her long hair isn't even hidden), is his newest page. Such a Proteus would not just misbehave awkwardly, as this one does, but with an almost Mr Hyde-style cunning. This, however, is not the intent, as this Proteus is Nick Fletcher, an actor whose transparent niceness makes it difficult for us to believe he could be such a creep.
The cast, almost entirely the same as that of A Midsummer Night's Dream, suffers from much the same problems: actresses. The charmless, shouty Phillipa Peak and Victoria Woodward reappear as Julia and her maid, smirking and leering to show wry amusement at feminine folly. So does the stodgy, matronly Issy Van Randwyck as the supposedly irresistible Silvia. For the rest, though, the production is superior in every way. Paul Farnsworth's costumes are light, fresh, late-18th-century summer casuals: the gauzy kerchiefs and sprigged muslins of the period when fashionable ladies contrived to look like ingenuous peasants. The outlaw band with whom Valentine, the other gentleman, takes refuge when banished from Milan are clearly the ancestors of the Penzance pirates. Lawless they may be, but not organised: Valentine easily defeats all seven of them (cheekily snatching a kiss from an obvious girl in disguise); one is so overexcited that he stabs himself. Nicholas Burns, in a more dashing part than his Demetrius, is clearly a chap who has gone to a good public school, with his deep-dyed decency, manly restraint and fine sense of fun.
John Hodgkinson, otherwise Theseus, gets more of a chance to be comic as Valentine's servant, Speed. Hands in his pockets (he's always complaining about the aristocracy being bad tippers), he rolls his eyes and sighs deeply at the dimness of his supposed betters. His droll detachment plays against the equally funny sobbing and flapping of Ian Talbot as Proteus's man, Launce. With the addition of Rachel Kavanaugh's dog Josie as Crab, they make a hilarious trio. When Crab's master laments his off-stage misbehaviour - "O, 'tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself in all companies!" - Josie brings the house down by turning on the audience with an incredulous, Jack Benny-ish look that plainly says, "Can he mean me?"
To 4 September (020-7486 2431)Reuse content