Two Gentlemen of Verona, RSC at the Barbican Pit

This is one of Shakespeare s earliest plays and one of his least known (this is only the eighth version that the RSC has mounted this century). It is true that there are some manifest weaknesses (notably a preponderance of truly awful puns), but Edward Hall s production renders the work, so often an historical curiosity, as a vibrant piece of theatre. Not a trick is missed to ensure the audience is entertained from the word go.

Hall s production is set in a very stylish non-Shakespearean Milan; this is a city where Armani and Versace hold sway and where pursuit of La Dolce Vita is everything.Proteus and Valentine are instantly recognisable as the pair of young bucks that one sees in a million wine bars; in particular the rapacious and fickle Proteus will certainly strike a chord with women everywhere.

Dominic Rowan plays Proteus as someone who, despite the attempted rape, is not truly evil, but just a guy who s out for what he can take. It s a strong performance, but it s Tom Goodman-Hill who really stands out; his Valentine is formal, priggish almost, but manifestly decent. His is a well-judged performance of a part that is not an easy one to play.

The relationship between these two is well-mirrored by that between their servants: John Dougall s Speed is a boisterous larrikin while Valentine s servant Launce is drolly played by Mark Hadfield. Launce is complemented by the only named dog in Shakespeare, Crab. This pair in particular proved a huge hit with the audience.

The women are more problematical. It s not that Lesley Vickerage s Julia or Poppy Miller s Silvia could be faulted, it is simply that the women s parts are so sketchily written. This play is about the relationship between the two main male characters and the female parts are merely ciphers. Is it likely that Silvia would be so easygoing with someone who has just tried to rape her?

These weaknesses emphasise how much this is a piece of juvenilia from Shakespeare. Hall s triumph is to produce such an entertaining version of one of the bard s lesser plays. Two Gentlemen of Verona is a resounding success for the RSC.

Maxwell Cooter