Since I hadn't seen a Two Gentlemen of Verona production or reread the William Shakespeare play in awhile, I was totally caught off guard by the many passionate discourses of love with which the young, entangled lovers express themselves. That's as I watched Simon Godwin's invigorating take shown live from Stratford-upon-Avon. The good news is the play is about to be on local screens (https://onscreen.rsc.org.uk/cinemas-and-tickets/).
Maybe I'd previously never even noticed how the four characters representing eternal youth spoke with such sophistication and without including, as today's generation might, a "like," "you know" or "awesome." Now I've registered these examples of twentysomething amour indelibly.
Although in the early play, fragments of other Shakespeare comedies and tragedies (Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream) poke through, it may be that the enamored quartet here expound on love more convincingly than any of the playwright's other lovers -- perhaps Beatrice and Benedick excepted, but maybe not.
The two gentlemen on hand are best friends Valentine (Michael Marcus) and Proteus (Mark Arends), who start out under the romantic spells of, respectively, Silvia (Sarah MacRae) and Julia (Pearl Chanda). All too soon, Proteus, perhaps destined by his name to be fickle, follows Valentine to Silvia's Milan door and falls for her, instantly forsaking his vows to Julia.
Those complications having already arisen, they're compounded by Silvia's beetle-browed father, Duke of Milan (Jonny Glynn), having betrothed his daughter to Thurio (Nicholas Gerard-Martin). Making matters worse, The Duke, at Proteus conniving suggestion, banishes Valentine. Other plot knots occur when Julia, hearing of Proteus's betrayal, disguises herself as a young lad and takes off for Milan to see who this Silvia is and whether Proteus can be won back from her.
As Two Gentlemen of Verona's five acts unfold, Shakespeare doesn't yet seem in full command of his craft. Some incidents don't entirely cohere, such as Valentine's being adopted as their leader by a group of similarly banished men. Also, a too-tidy ending mars the dark comedy (made darker by Bruno Poet's lighting, as if all the action takes place at night).
Yet, there are the lovers' engaging plights, and there are amusing subsidiary characters thrown in to digress from all the lovelorn stuff. Fun is infused by Valentine's wiry, fast-talking servant Speed (Martin Bassindale) and Proteus's big-boned servant Launce (Roger Morlidge), who travels with obedient pooch Crab (Mossup).
Under Godwin's direction on the thrust stage and with Paul Wills's set (there are a few balcony scenes), the cast is the thing throughout. While Marcus, Arends, MacRae and Chanda acquit themselves well throughout as the star-crossed foursome, the most electric exchange takes place when Julia in male drag meets Silvia, and they talk about love's injuries. Both actresses register as two ladies -- one of Verona, one of Milan -- to be closely watched in future roles.
Other highlights include Gerard-Martin singing "Who is Silvia? What is she?" (Michael Bruce's music) under the much-used balcony and almost anything Morlidge as Launce and Mossup as Crab do. The Stratford audience members dote on Crab's every move, even when he remains stock-still. They applaud when he barks on cue -- and then receives the treat Morlidge feeds him. Yes, Crab is a reminder of the old thespians' adage about not acting with children or dogs.
Incidentally, when the troublesome Proteus is caught at his manipulative activities, he's punished in a scene that looks a lot like waterboarding. This Godwin directorial choice may be a first. Also notice that Proteus takes it on the chin for abandoning Julia, whereas no such punishment comes to that other Verona bloke Romeo when he drops Rosaline like yesterday's fish-and-chips.
There's no telling when Two Gentlemen of Verona will come around again. So if an incarnation this good is available, that's even more reason to tune right in.