Shakespeare’s last work for the theatre, in collaboration with the young John Fletcher, is now acknowledged to be a part of the canon and is a troubling and complex reworking of Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. Director Blanche McIntyre has been entrusted with this generically mixed-up work for her debut at the RSC and for me she has done a very good job indeed, especially capturing the breaks in mood between comic and tragic moments and the somewhat shocking ending. There have been mixed reviews of this production; but I think the uneasiness is not with the production as such but with a play that so abruptly mixes comedy and tragedy, wilfully exploits farce and satire so unexpectedly, and therefore is open to many approaches and interpretations. I did find at times that I could not make out clearly enough some of the lines, but that might just be because of where I was sitting. The pacing of this production is superbly energetic. The story revolves around two cousins who are inseparable friends until they both fall in love at first sight with the sister-in-law of Theseus, the king who is holding them captive after a war. The setting is notionally Ancient Greece. The subtext of the complex sexualities of the protagonists is made explicit in the suggestions of bisexuality that abound. The touching character of the jailer’s daughter, played by Danusia Samal with great feeling, who loves only Palamon and loves him sincerely, seem to be a revisit to the madness and situation of Ophelia. Gyuri Sarossy is a striking, macho-playboy Theseus who seems more in love with his friend Pirithous (Chis Jack) than his bride Hippolyta, and is not entirely unrecognizable from an earlier Shakespearean outing. Some of these characters are a clear reference back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to its situation of the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta (strongly played by Allison McKenzie) as a backdrop to other stories; and there is even a kind of recall of the Mechanicals putting on their play. At moments, one thinks Shakespeare is doing a bit of conscious revisiting before he throws in the towel on his career.
Apparently Shakespeare wrote most of the opening and closing acts of this piece; but some of the moments that are most simple, even prosaic, yet most dramatically effective must, I suspect, have either been by him or carefully edited from what Fletcher did. There are some simple, straightforward exchanges between Palamon and Arcite, especially, that are very powerful dramatically. The production’s design is as mixed in terms of time references as the genres and moods of the text; but I found the set especially effective and liked the mesh walls that descend to represent the prison cells as well as the overall simplicity of the stage. The opening was a bit confusing at times; but once the play gets going the action is very clear and compelling.
The plight of the women as mere sex objects, trophies or playthings of the men is well presented and very interesting. But the stars and focus of the show, for me, were the two noble kinsmen themselves, the cousins Palamon and Arcite. James Corrigan and Jamie Wilkes centre the action and make it completely fascinating with their fine, contrasting performances and characterizations. Both are appealing and make the ditherings of Frances McNamee as Emilia comprehensible not just because she is originally shown to have lesbian leanings and then compelled by Theseus to accept a husband, but because both men are so attractive and worthy of her devotion.
The play has a history at The Swan, where it appeared in the very first season exactly 30 years ago. It is rarely done but this production made me think it would be interesting to see other approaches to it and to read and puzzle over this text along with the source material by Chaucer. I recommend a visit to The Two Noble Kinsmen for its own sake as a fascinating tragicomic play, not just if you want to catch up with a rarity Shakespeare was involved in.