Somber Shakespearean drama bookends three acts - supposedly composed by Fletcher - played as comedy, in a schizophrenic but entertaining black-box production. In a surprising turn, the jailer's daughter provides the drama and poignancy and the titular cousins are the hyper-competitive comic-relief. Fueled by a young cast and clever staging.
Directed by David Latham. Designed by David Gaucher. Lights by Michael Whitfield. Sound by Jim Neil. Composed by Keith Thomas.
Michael Therriault (Speaker/Schoolmaster/Doctor), Jonathan Goad (Theseus), Jane Spence (Hippolyta), Michelle Giroux (Emilia), Rami Posner (Palamon), Brendan Murray (Arcite), Thom Marriott (Jailer), Michael Schultz (Wooer), Deborah Hay (Jailer's Daughter).
Featuring a cast of alumni from the Stratford Festival Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training, the Conservatory's Principal, David Latham, directs this black-box production of The Two Noble Kinsmen. Iron poles rise eighteen feet from the stage in six rows of ten, creating the upstage effect of a palace interior, a prison, and a forest. A pool of water shimmers at center stage, with a burning candle floating upon a dish at its center. The head of an emerald-green horse emerges from the water, one fetlock on the stage, a majestic and noble animal at the center of an elemental set of iron, water, and fire.
The production begins with a cymbal crash and percussive music. The Speaker, clad entirely in black, serves as prologue while the widowed queens, shrouded in black robes with their faces concealed, prostrate themselves before Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding party. Five soldiers wield long staffs and pound percussion. The ruling Athenians are a primitive warrior society, all barefoot and wearing black or linen-colored clothing. The queens resemble Macbeth's witches in their ritualistic motions, wearing crimson eye shadow and with vertical black stripes over their eyes. Martial music with an Oriental undertone concludes the scene.
Latham lightens the tone somewhat at the start of 1.3, as Hippolyta and Emilia chat and splash each other, their bare feet in the pool. The scene darkens with the arrival of pony-tailed Theseus, victorious in war but nursing a bloodied arm. Arcite and Palamon are carried onstage upon stretchers, bare-chested and streaked with dirt, their wrists and ankles manacled and chained. Guards herd them upstage, where they are imprisoned, the vertical poles serving as the iron bars of a jail cell. The black-clad queens scurry around them and chant, again like Macbeth's witches crowing over the triumph of fate.
With 2.1, generally considered to be composed by John Fletcher rather than Shakespeare, Latham's production takes an odd turn into comedy. Arcite and Palamon both fall in love at first sight with Emilia, who strolls past in a sleeveless leather vest, posing with a bouquet of flowers cradled in her arms. The titular cousins argue - "I saw her first!" - making slapstick motions with their wrist manacles and taking comical baby-steps due to their leg irons. When Arcite is released but banished, he decries his "poor" fortune at being sent away from Emilia.
Deborah Hay delivers a remarkable performance as the jailer's daughter, descending with touching sadness into insanity due to her unrequited love for Palamon. Her scenes seem written as comic relief, and Latham provides humorous touches - when she suddenly breaks into high-pitched mourning song, the entire cast starts in surprise - but Hay elevates the character. Her thundering father is a massive bearded giant in burgundy leather, but Hay is a wide-eyed, soft-spoken waif unable to understand her own feelings. The jailer's daughter could have been played as a simple country bumpkin, but Hay imbues her with tragic depth via her sympathetic portrayal. For example, once she frees Palamon she expects his gratitude, but instead she wanders the forest alone, and Hay's sadness and sense of loss is crushing.
The same actor who portrayed the Speaker also portrays the schoolmaster (and later will play the daughter's doctor), leading a colorful 3.5 dance with flowing streamers. With attendants who are obviously the witch-like queens with their striped, red-shadowed eye make-up, the daughter becomes erotically enamored with the furry baboon tail of an actor's animal costume. Later, in 4.1, the jailer and his men reluctantly indulge her hysteria - "out with the main sail!" - by pretending to be sailors at sea. The doctor's advice to the wooer to accept the daughter's sexual advances comes in a comic shout from far upstage - "take her offer!" - but when he and the delusional daughter depart, the jailer kisses his hand and sadly waves farewell.
Palamon and Arcite continue the comic take on rivalry, kinship and nobility with their 3.6 duel. The tearing apart of their friendship provides the heart of the production - although more focus is placed on humor than on their sense of honor - and the two young actors are immensely likeable in their portrayals. Forced to arm each other - "how do I look?" - they battle each other first with swords, then with the long wooden poles from the canvas bag that held the armor. The struggle features a great deal of movement and chasing, and concludes with each of them holding the other's head underwater in the pool.
The production reaches interval with Theseus' decree that the two kinsmen must fight again, the victor taking Emilia's hand and the loser executed. The 5.1 duel presents a return to the ritualistic staging of the opening scenes and, as is thought, to the writing of Shakespeare. The combatants now wear full chain mail and are armed by their seconds. Arcite's kneeling appeal to the war-god Mars features a flash from strobes, then fiery red lighting and claps of thunder. Palamon's gentler appeal to the gods is a prayer to Venus, presented with a shimmering light effect across the upstage spears, amid blue lighting and the tones from a harp.
Latham concludes the production with an inexorable rush of fate. Victorious Arcite, crushed beneath his own falling horse, is returned to the stage upon a stretcher in the same fashion as when he made his first appearance in 1.3. Palamon is reprieved from a beheading in the blue light of Venus, the higher nobility of his appeal to the god of love subtle but clear. After Emilia closes the eyes of the expired Arcite, she sadly takes Palamon's hand and the production concludes.
The Two Noble Kinsmen is an awkward play, at times almost schizophrenic - comedy and tragedy, love and war - showing its dual authorship. But under Latham's direction, the knights' tale is strikingly visual and very entertaining.
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.21, No.2, Spring/Summer 2003.