After thoroughly enjoying The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre last week, I was excited about the second part of the ‘Bookends’ programme – Shakespeare’s first and last plays shown in repertoire. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play, but The Two Noble Kinsmen is said to have been co-written with John Fletcher.
Like last week’s play, the story covers two men – in this case, cousins or ‘kinsmen’ – who fall in love with the same woman. Palamon and Arcite are prisoners of Theseus, Duke of Athens, sustained in their imprisonment by their care for one another – but their friendship sours when they both glimpse Emilia, sister-in-law of Theseus, from the prison window. Palamon claims precedence, having seen her first, but Arcite is the one who manages to get out of the prison and try out his charms on her. Palamon is released by the prison warder’s daughter who is in love with him, and the two men embark on a bitter competition to win the lady, with their old friendship occasionally resurfacing.
Eliot Fitzpatrick and Fraser Wall play the kinsmen well, fighting over the same woman as they did in Verona, while Tom Durrant Pritchard is suitably commanding as Theseus. Laura Elsworth as the jailer’s daughter, who releases Palamon out of love, is superbly affecting in her scenes, her distraught solo monologues a stark contrast to the two kinsmen and their interactions with the other characters, who have all but forgotten her.
Kinsmen is a darker play than Verona, and this is reflected in the atmosphere: low lighting, muted music, and a sparse set. The ending, too, is less ambiguous and more unequivocally tragic than the earlier play, though I actually preferred the former, offering as it did greater opportunity for the theatre company – Perfect Shadow Mingled Yarn – to leave their own mark on the production. Director Matthew Monaghan, however, still manages to do a good job, with several effective and disturbing scenes, particularly the hard-hitting rape scene. The production has a lot to say about the role of women in the play: their views are largely ignored in favour of the male characters. Emilia is seen as a prize to be won, with both cousins fighting over her in ignorance at her own wishes, and both refusing to give up on her even if she should choose the other. To my mind, neither of the kinsmen were particularly noble, and in fact most of the male characters were almost as dislikeable, with the Duke of Athens the only one for whom I felt real pity, surrounded by stubbornness on all sides and forced to make tough decisions.
I am pleased that I’ve been able to tick The Two Noble Kinsmen off my list, and even more pleased that I’ve been able to do so watching such an accomplished production. I hope to see more of Perfect Shadow Mingled Yarn in the future.