Theatre review: Two Gentlemen of Verona, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol

 

What if there were no magic potion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What if your best friend fell for your girl and no enchanted flower could lift the spell? That is the premise of Shakespeare’s rarely performed comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona. And this is the play that director Andrew Hilton and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory have chosen to stage in rep with their recent Richard III.

The play, often assumed to be Shakespeare’s first, tells the story of Valentine and Proteus. The latter is in love with Julia. Until, that is, he meets Valentine’s beloved, Sylvia. But, to be frank, the play is best-known as the only work in which Shakespeare cast a dog.

Hilton and designer Harriet de Winton move the action to the early 1900s: all cream suits, café culture and crooners (with delightful music by John Telfer). But this is a production which never takes itself seriously: dancing waiters and erection jokes see to that.

Piers Wehner is the fresh-faced cad Proteus, and he manages, for a while, to take the audience with him. But no actor, surely, could make this watered-down Iago an object of empathy for long. Jack Bannell doesn’t have it much easier in the dull and earnest role of Valentine. But when he’s banished, Bannell manages to create a rare moment of pathos.

Sylvia and the long-suffering Julia, brought to life by Lisa Kay and Dorothea Myer-Bennett, are given more fighting spirit than Shakespeare perhaps intended, and the play is surely the more interesting as a result.

But now – to the dog. Chris Donnelly as Launce, clownish servant and owner of ‘Crab’, regales the audience with the off-stage antics of his roguish pup: from stealing a capon to becoming too ‘amorously’ acquainted with a lady’s leg. His monologues are made all the more funny by the dog’s quiet obedience. It goes without saying that Crab manages to steal a couple of scenes – even from such a consummate Shakespearean clown as Donnelly. Elsewhere, Launce’s fellow comic, Speed, is brilliantly played by the quick-witted Marc Geoffrey.

This play isn’t as deft as Twelfth Night, as enchanting as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or as dangerously seductive as The Tempest. But Hilton discovers in Two Gentlemen of Verona an unblinking portrait of love’s madness. There may be no magic bloom, but this production has a different kind of charm. And it’s not all down to the dog.

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