The thrust of Andrew Hilton’s second Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory play of this season is simple: men are idiots. Some are more or less idiotic than others, but, in essence, none of them come out of this tale well. What Hilton’s production manages to do is remain pretty funny without ignoring the darker moments. He also returns to the women of the piece a little of the dignity which their assorted menfolk do their best to remove.
Valentine, a well-to-do young man of Verona, is off to Milan to attend the court there, and teases his bosom friend Proteus for decided to stay put in Verona, kept there by his sworn love for Julia. Except, as mentioned previously, Proteus is an idiot. Bidden by his father to join Valentine in Verona, he leaves his Julia, swearing eternal loyalty etc etc. Proteus, on arriving in Milan, finds his friend has also fallen in love, and in an astonishingly ridiculous turn of events, Proteus then falls in love with Silvia, on whom Valentine dotes. Got that? Valentine, who is not the sharpest tool in the box, fails to notice Proteus’s about-face, and ends up banished on Proteus’s slander where he is naturally forced to become an outlaw. Proteus then attempts to woo Silvia for himself, forsaking Julia and double-crossing Lord Turio, Sylvia’s father’s intended husband for her. So far, so ludicrous. Without rehearsing the entire plot here, suffice to say that Julia disguises herself as a man (of course) and ends up as Proteus’s page (he doesn’t recognise her because he’s an idiot); Silvia runs away with the felp of the hapless (and eventually trouser-less) Eglamour (SATTF stalwart Alan Coveney); Proteus attempt to rape Silvia, in front of the disguised Julia; they all live happily ever after. Well, it is a comedy.
The problem with the play lies in the story itself, not in this production: it’s almost incomprehensible, to a modern audience, why Julia would continue to dote upon a man who proves time and time again to be an unfaithful, violent idiot. Baby-faced Piers Wehner is very charming and affable, but Proteus himself is almost never likeable, let alone loveable. I suppose one could make a point about people who stay in abusive relationships, but Hilton doesn’t seem to be doing this here – Julia (the wonderful Dorothea Myer-Bennett) is played pretty straight. Her love is portrayed as genuine and, despite watching Proteus woo Silvia and even being reqired to woo on his behalf, she does want him back.
What Hilton does well is allow the female characters to maintain some autonomy; they end up with the men they choose, because they choose. They have some agency, which is nicely reiterated at the end when the women walk off arm-in-arm leaving their gormless fiances to walk together. All of the action is underlined and punctuated by John Telfer’s music, played onstage by Peter Clifford, Thomas Frere, David Plimmer and Eva Tausig. Jack Bannell plays Valentine as a kind of loveable buffoon, and gets away with it because his character looks like quite a catch compared to Proteus. Dorothea Myer-Bennet is a delight as the fiery Julia, as likely to burst into tears as to disguise herself a boy and travel to Milan. Elegant Silvia is given some pizzazz by Lisa Kay, complaining loudly that she is not a gift to be given, and that she will only consent to marry Valentine when he asks her rather than her father.
Comic relief is provided by the various servants: Julia’s maid (Nicky Goldie), Valentine’s servant (Marc Geoffrey) and Proteus’s long-suffering servant Launce (Chris Donnelly). Geoffrey and Donnelly particularly play well of each other, making the most of every terrible pun and using Crab the dog (Lollio, who stole the show) to great effect. Paul Currier makes an amusing Lord Turio (also an idiot) who is duped by Proteus, and Peter Clifford looks like he’s having fun as the stern Duke of Milan.
It’s an enjoyable evening once you decide to stop worrying that such interesting women are wasting themselves on such foolish men. Hilton’s direction has once again brought out beautiful verse-speaking from his cast, ensuring that ancient jokes are still funny and creating a fast-paced show. It’s not an unproblematic comedy, especially the ending, and this production finds a nice path through the complexities to end up with a show that remains true but sneaks in a few knowing twists. Worth seeing for the dog alone, Hilton has another great show on his hands.
Two Gentlemen of Verona is at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol until 4 May. Visit the Tobacco Factory’s website for more details and to buy tickets.
Photo: Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Julia and Piers Wehner as Proteus. (c) Toby Farrow, Farrows Creative.