The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of the more rarely-performed Shakespeare plays. On one level, it's not hard to see why as the last scene, is exceedingly problematic for directors. Proteus's attempted rape of Silvia is a shocking moment in a gentle comedy of manners, but what's even harder for modern audiences to take, is his immediate forgiveness by Silvia's lover, Valentine, and his own betrothed, Julia (although not by Silvia herself).
But that's not the only problem. Two Gentlemen is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, possibly his earliest comedy, and at that stage he was not mature enough as a writer to deal with Proteus' development from devoted lover and all-round good guy to a lying deceitful, violent rapist.
It's as if Shakespeare thought the name alone would be sufficient to alert viewers to his changeable nature. Modern audiences would probably like a little more guide to his motivation. Rachel Kavanaugh's production doesn't solve the problem, but she has given us an intelligent, well-paced version that's strong on the comedy but plays down the darker side.
She has set the piece in the Regency period. Perhaps this is because it's an era where young men could be expected to behave badly. In such circumstances, a libidinous Proteus could blend easily into the background.
Kavanaugh is helped by an assured performance from Nick Fletcher as the smoothly changeable Proteus. He might not truly convince why he has changed, but he's fully plausible as both the ardent young lover and libertine. There's also an engaging Valentine from Nicholas Burns, although it's hard to think of him as a fearsome captain of a band of brigands - although this particular bunch of outlaws seems rather too soft to be terrors of the forest.
Philippa Peak brings a real sense of tragedy to Julia, as she learns of her betrayal by Proteus. Less assured in the more comic scenes perhaps, she's the only member of the cast to really get to grips with Two Gentlemen's darker elements.
Although it has many faults, Shakespeare's play also contains some great lyrical poetry and some very funny set-pieces. John Hodgkinson and Ian Talbot (although a bit old for the part) drag out every ounce of humour from the servants Speed and Launce, respectively. And, of course, as ever in productions of this one, the dog is a sure-fire audience pleaser.
Despite not dealing with all the complexities and ambiguities of the play, Kavanaugh's is an engaging and charming production. While not fully satisfying the appetite for real Shakespeare, it's a wonderful aperitif - especially on a glorious summer's evening.
- Maxwell Cooter