The story of two young noblemen who are great mates but end up loving the same woman offers audiences a taste of Shakespeare’s wit and wisdom, although it is one of his earliest plays and lacks some of the qualities of later works.
There is much backslapping and stage laughter to establish the friendship of Valentine (Matthew Chapman) and Proteus (Alex Antoniou), who wittily exchange puns and discuss their personal dilemmas. The conversation and gags are not easily followed, however, and with the characters dressed in modern clothing it is difficult for an audience to reconcile the language they are hearing with the modern characters they are seeing.
There is also the typical Elizabethan predicament of characters falling suddenly and uncontrollably in love without significant scenes within which they can actually deepen their relationship.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is described as a comedy but both the text and the actors seemed to be more comfortable when delving into the more serious conflicts and dark desires of the characters. Antoniou successfully explores the range of turbulent emotions experienced by Proteus and Chapman is likeable as the pleasant, naïve and deceived Valentine, though he could afford to show more growth as a result of his banishment.
Bonnie McAllister, as Julia, and Sheridan Cox, as Lucetta, are a good duo as mistress and maid, and they, too, come into their own when Proteus proves disloyal to his beloved Julia. Matt Houston is very funny as Lance: he delivers his dialogue at a sensible pace and effectively finds the comedy in almost every line.
Lindsay Dunn portrays the Duke, Sylvia’s father, as a powerful patriarchal figure, while Kate van der Horst is excellent as Silvia, the woman who remains loyal to Valentine and emphatically rejects the attentions of Proteus. Silvia’s reaction to Proteus’s superficial, hypocritical serenading is delivered with considerable skill.
As in later plays, the lead characters find themselves in a forest, this time at the mercy of a band of outlaws (looking as if they were at a Prince Harry party rather than struggling to survive). Not surprising for the times, when it was believed that nobles were born to rule, they choose Valentine to be their leader. Some malevolent light and sound effects are created in these scenes, and a little more of the music would have helped sustain the mystery and sense of danger.
Shakespeare’s plays present certain problems when being performed now because of a changing sense of values. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus resorts to domestic violence and attempts to rape Silvia when he is rejected by her. When he speaks of feeling shame and asks for forgiveness, it seems incredulous that his friend Valentine might then suggest a double wedding to celebrate the occasion.
The directors leave us with an image of both women looking doubtful and concerned about the prospects of a successful future relationship as the two men leave the stage, reconciled.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not an easy play to stage – it is less well known than other Shakespeare works and performed less often – but in the hands of these experienced directors and cast, the Theatre Guild has done an admirable job.
University of Adelaide Theatre Guild is presenting The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Little Theatre, The Cloisters, Adelaide University, until May 21.