The Two Gentlemen of Verona Review

Shakespeare scholars would have you believe that The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a lesser work by the Bard. Thankfully, I'm not a Shakespearean scholar, because I found the RSC's production of this rarely performed play utterly enchanting. Believed to be Shakespeare's earliest play, it's clearly the work of an inexperienced youth and certainly has its flaws. It's no misunderstood masterpiece, but the lack of performances and interpretations have probably led it to this early work being underappreciated and undervalued, as it already incorporates many of the themes and ideas that will be explored in greater depth in Shakespeare's other great later comedies.

The RSC's The Two Gentlemen of Verona is perhaps all the more enjoyable simply because it isn't performed that often. It doesn't have to live-up to previous interpretations, or come with any baggage of memorable lines that have to be rephrased, but rather it seems to have retained the freshness of youth with which it was undoubtedly written and which you don't find quite so much in Shakespeare's other works. Perhaps tha't also because this actual live recording at Stratford-upon-Avon follows on from the rather more heavyweight RSC double-bill of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Richard II before that. Or perhaps, it's the fact that it is just a youthful play dealing with youthful sentiments, and dealing with them well, that makes it such a refreshing and entertaining work. But it's not without a slightly darker side either.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is about young love; falling completely, deeply, head-over-heels in love for the first time, and Shakespeare fully captures that whirlwind rush of emotions. It might not have the epic romantic tragedy of the later Verona set Romeo and Juliet or the absurdity of the young lovers in the woods in A Midsummer Night's Dream; it might not have the mystery of attraction found in Twelfth Night or the dark cynicism of Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew; and let's not even go to the complex ties that bind and shatter the relationships in Lord and Lady Macbeth or Desdemona and Othello, but The Two Gentlemen of Verona is not without some astute and slightly more concise observations on the nature of love and, specifically, young love.
Let's see how Shakespeare puts it here - "Love is blind", "Love hath chased sleep from my enthralled eyes, and made them watchers of mine own heart's sorrow", Love is a mighty lord", "Love delights in praises", "Love, lend me wings". All fine sentiments, to be sure, all of them uttered at one point or another by Valentine or Proteus, two young friends from Verona, who have travelled to the big city of Milan to find their fortune, but instead have found true love for the first time. Unfortunately for the two gentlemen of Verona, they are both in love with the same woman, Silvia.

"All's fair in love and war" is not a saying that comes from this play, but it's certainly the attitute of Proteus who is dazzled by Silvia's sophisticated beauty at first sight, and jealous of his friend's girlfriend. He not only immediately banishes any further thoughts of the former object of his affections, Julia, telling others she is dead and referring to her as "a swarthy wretch", merely a "twinkling star" in comparison to the "celestial sun" of Julia, but he's also prepared to step in and betray his friend and rival by informing Sylvia's father The Duke of Milan of Valentine's plans to elope with her that night. The Duke favours Tulio as a match for Sylvia, but Proteus reckons he can outwit that rival far more easily. He's not wrong there, but swaying the sentiments of the constant Sylvia is another matter.

If the plot of The Two Gentlemen of Verona sounds a little thin in outline, it is nonetheless enlivened with several uncommon twists in addition to the cross-dressing disguises that would become a frequent device in Shakespeare plays. Valentine even becomes an outlaw leading a group of unusually principled bandits in the woods (reminiscent of Falstaff's merry band in Henry IV, Part 2). It also has the usual well-appointed group of comic supporting characters, including Valentine's servant Speed, Launce with his punning and riddles, and even a canine role for Crab the dog. The weakness of the play however becomes apparent at the rushed and unconvincing conclusion, and some of the actions - particularly by Proteus in an attempted rape of Sylvia - are rather dubious in characterisation, even for the theme of love making us act beyond all reason, but there's still much to enjoy in the work.

Particularly as it is so well staged, directed and played here at the RSC, with a young energetic cast, and unsurprisingly, it's the performance that determines how much value this work has. The set is wonderfully decorated to appear fresh, modern, light and continental. In the live cinema broadcast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, there was a few minutes of introduction with a small band playing in a Italian piazza street-cafe to establish mood and tone, showing the passing of a letter from Proteus through Speed to Julia's maid. Sadly this dialogue-free scene has been cut from the BD release, but the production retains the stylish, bright, modern and young sensibility elsewhere without trying too hard to be clever and force the issue, with a delightfully choreographed scene in a trendy Milanese nightclub and a raucous serenade by Tulio under Silvia's balcony. Evidently then music with all its youthful enthusiasms and expressiveness plays a large part in the production here, and Michael Bruce's arrangements integrate perfectly with the play, striking the right tone throughout, leaving you humming its catchy tunes by the end.

The RSC's 2014 The Two Gentlemen of Verona is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. On Blu-ray the transfer of the live HD theatre broadcast is 1080/60p (as opposed to 24fps for a film) with an AVC encode. The BD is all-region compatible.
Opus Arte specialises in DVDs and Blu-rays of live productions of ballet, opera and drama. As with the previous releases of Richard II and Henry IV, Parts I and II, the first of the RSCs productions to be filmed live and released on DVD and BD, the quality of the High Definition transfer is of an exceptionally high standard. The image quality is pristine on the Blu-ray release, the HD transfer handling the theatre conditions with the varying lighting conditions well. Here it's warm-toned for the Italian sun, and with theatrical lighting skin-tones might not look at all natural, but the level of detail is superb, the image sharp. Colours, contrasts, tones and shadow detail are impressive. There are no technical issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing.

Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz/24-bit. Filmed live, under theatrical conditions with no visible microphones on the person or around the stage, there is evidently a degree of theatre reverb here, but I didn't have any issue with following the well-enunciated text. I found that the use of headphones with thre stereo track made the sound a little more direct, but iff anyone has hearing ssues, there are English subtitles provided. There's a fair bit of directional activity in the surround mix, particularly for music and ambient sound effects. The LFE channel isn't quite so well defined, but it's doesn't get a lot of use here..

Subtitles are in English only on this Opus Arte RSC release (previous releases included French and German subtitles). The font is white, bold and clear to read, containing the full spoken text of the play.

There is a full Director's Commentary included here, Simon Godwin, with assistant director Lily McLeish, pointing out the pecularities of the play and explaining production choices, as well as illuminating and interpreting what is going on in places. An 8-minute Introducing the Play consists of interviews with the director and cast, there's a short piece on Introducing Mossup, the dog-actor, and there's a Trailer and a Cast Gallery also included in the Extra features. The booklet contains an essay that considers the few historical references to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and there's a short synopsis there.

It's no masterpiece, but The Two Gentlemen of Verona is also more than just a rarely-performed early curiosity written by Shakespeare. The performance is key to its success here at the RSC, Simon Godwin updating the work to a more modern continental setting that gives it a welcome note of youth and freshness. There are terrific performances also from the young cast who capture both the light carefree side of youth as well as the hard road to maturity that the play covers, interacting wonderfully with each other in the rapid-fire exchanges. The filming of the live performance captures the qualities of the direction well, and it comes across particularly well in the BD release.

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