"Two Gentlemen of Verona ROCK"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 09/09/16

The Globe on Tour exploded onto Exeter’s Northcott Theatre stage with infectious exuberance and an abundance of talent and creativity – the only way to tackle ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ – perhaps Shakespeare’s first performed play and frankly, one which nowadays would remain on the slush pile. I am indebted to Sparknotes for my summary of the deeply problematic ending:

[Proteus] tries to rape [Sylvia] … but Valentine jumps out and stops him. Proteus immediately apologizes, and Valentine offers to give him Sylvia as a token of their friendship. At this moment, ‘Sebastian’ faints and his true identity [Julia] becomes clear. Proteus decides that he really loves Julia better than Sylvia, and takes her instead. The Duke [Sylvia’s father] says that Valentine can marry Sylvia. Valentine suggests that his marriage to Sylvia and Proteus' marriage to Julia should take place on the same day.

Bros before hoes, indeed.

In an earlier review of a different production of this play, I wrote, ‘Underneath much romantic posturing by lovelorn, shallow young men over desirable young women, there is a deeper, darker thread of homo-eroticism where the true desire is to impress other men, with women reduced to the level of accessories. Think of some famous rock bands.’ This production did exactly that, taking the play into the mid-1960s with music and costumes that showed us the drabness before, and the dazzling brightness that briefly lit up the skies. (Although I was a teenager then and even in 1962 beige was the colour in which we would not be seen dead…)

All too often, when actors play rock musicians, it’s a tad embarrassing. Not with this production. The music was fabulous. The ‘Jerusalem’ homage to Hendrix’s ‘Star-spangled Banner’ was outstanding. The absence of a programme (grrrr) means I can’t credit Crab for his wonderful musicianship. And yes, I have looked on the website. Fred Thomas? And the Woodstock-style piece by the Outlaws was so stunning I felt nostalgic for the Afghan coat I nearly bought in 1969.

A fellow critic suggests a more appropriate title for this play is ‘One Gentleman of Verona and One Complete Jerk’. Valentine, a truly gentle man, tenderly played by Guy Hughes, matured before our eyes, and despite carefully planted fears that he was going to prove a three-chord wonder in the band, sang a beautiful love song. Alas, his maturity did not extend to tending to a broken Sylvia after the attempted rape. He put more effort into repairing his bromance with the complete jerk, Proteus, played with wily charm, masking breath-taking treachery, by Dharmesh Patel. His fiendishly challenging emotional smorgasbord has to include true penitence and his repentance was impressive – if only some of it had been bestowed on Sylvia and Julia (Aruhan Galieva and Leah Brotherhead).

Sylvia has some of the most wonderful lines in the play – her fierce integrity throws the superficial treachery of Proteus into sharp relief. Aruhan Galieva gives Sylvia a vivacity and wisdom that is wasted on Valentine. I struggled to hear her at the beginning, but then all was well. Her musicianship was terrific. Let’s hope Sylvia and Julia form a girl band - ‘Two Gentlewomen of Verona’. Their final, heart-breaking duet was a show stopper... Leah Brotherhood was a delight throughout, with crystal clear diction. Her Sebastian was extremely good, and as Julia she was appealing and brave. (And wasted on Proteus...)

Cracking performances from Garry Cooper (the Duke masquerading as a human deckchair); Amber James as a feisty Lucetta and hapless suitor Thurio; Adam Keast as Speed, Valentine’s sharp-witted servant with way more savvy than his master. Charlotte Mills brought enjoyable broad humour and energy to her role as Launce, not to mention a homage to Mama Cass…

I’m already over my word limit and have so much more I could say. My companion and I talked about Nick Bagnall’s production all the way back to Somerset. Despite a twenty year age difference we both remember the Sixties. And I was there! I’m glad I remember it all, despite the well-known aphorism that ‘If you remember the Sixties et cetera’, because the changing times were so vivid and optimistic. Designer Katie Sykes’ witty set and evocative costumes and James Fortune’s compositions did the era proud.

I could have watched it all over again in a heartbeat - even when the company had fun with Bob Dylan’s musical delivery. I don’t do idolising, not even the Bobster, but I was contemplating dudgeon for a moment, until the beguiling began.

Unmissable.

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