Playing at the Swan to mark 30 years since its opening – when it was also performed – The Two Noble Kinsmen is one of the strangest plays in the Shakespeare canon. Of course, to be accurate, I should say the Shakespeare/Fletcher canon, since it was co-written with the much younger rising star John Fletcher right at the end of the older playwright’s career.
There are lots of reasons why this play isn’t ranked among the classics, and most of them are the plot. It tells the story of two related knights – the noble kinsmen of the title – who fall out with each other for love of a girl, Emilia. If only it were that simple. Even by Shakespeare’s standards, the narrative is intricate, convoluted and, frankly, by the end openly risible.
Fortunately, this complex mess is handled by director Blanche McIntyre, making her RSC debut, and she tackles it boldly, majoring on the intriguing subtext of sexuality and its apparent fascination to the authors. Eschewing any kind of naturalism or clear historical period, she allows her cast to launch themselves into the piece wholeheartedly, and is rewarded with some classy performances.
Jamie Wilkes and James Corrigan, in particular, are outstanding in the title roles. Like a kind of antiquity Ant and Dec, their sparring and banter is one of the highlights of the evening, and they are constantly inventive, credible and great fun to watch. Paul McEwan is beautifully understated as a northern jailer – think Alan Bennett with handcuffs – while Frances McNamee tussles gamely with the vacillations of her role as the object of the boys’ affection.
Elsewhere, however, there are too many things that should enhance the production which instead detract from its overall appeal. The design is a perfect illustration. Anna Fleischle‘s Coliseum-evoking set looks like it’s going to be a thrilling arena for the action to play out: instead, it quickly becomes cumbersome, obstructive and noisy, with its faux-granite blocks and flown-in prison bars hindering more than they help. And the sightlines are unforgivably poor for far too much of the time.
Costumes, too, are confusing. Where they could be dressing to a spectacular look, they leave you spending too much time wondering what they are meant to be referencing – or even, in some cases, what they are.
There’s another fundamental problem in the lack of clarity of much of the speaking. Even from my position in row D, well clear of the gallery overhang, lines were lost, speeches gabbled and thrown away, and the plain sense of the language too often missing.
It’s a valiant attempt at staging an unwieldy, difficult play which lurches from tragedy to comedy and back again without much warning, and as an exercise in exploring the hinterland of Shakespearean oddities, it’s of considerable interest. It also notches up another tick in the RSC’s ongoing journey through the complete works. Whether this production goes down in the annals as one of the great Kinsmen of history is another matter.
The Two Noble Kinsmen runs at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 7 February 2017.
Running time: 3 hours