Most playwrights, like actors, would hope to end their careers on a high but for those, whose time here is cut unexpectedly short, there often isn’t the chance for forward planning.
No-one really knows the extent of The Bard’s contribution to The Two Noble Kinsmen, which opened this week in the Royal Shakespeare Company’sSwan Theatre, but he is given a joint writing credit with a young upstart, John Fletcher, nonetheless.
The play is a mismash of ideas and themes, some borrowed from other plays, that are knitted together into one rambling yarn.
Midsummer Night’s Dream’s elder statesman, Theseus, and his wife-to-be, Hippolyta, reappear. They’re still not hitched and the couple’s continual bickering makes you wonder if they ever will.
The tragic figure of Hamlet’s Ophelia is reused for another, equally lovesick and demented, young woman who isn’t even afforded a proper name.
Meanwhile, this uneven story meanders through the pursuit of love, rivalry, sexual ambiguity and even The Olympics (nice and topical that).
At its heart are two fine, very physical, performances from Jamie Wilkes and James Corrigan as cousins, and testosterone-overloaded soldiers, Arcite and Palamon, who keep fit by yomping on stage with bricks in their backpacks and flexing their muscles at every opportunity.
In one scene they’re in vests, their bulging biceps in full view (with Corrigan the more defined – I made a note – which should excite some elements of the audience).
It really is a hard life being a young male actor these days. Even Gyuri Sarossy’s Theseus puts on a bit of a show, doing a bunch of sit-ups while delivering his dialogue through one scene.
It has got to the point where theatre companies are now having to provide gym facilities along with dressing rooms (much to the chagrin of older, character, actors).
I wished The Two Noble Kinsmen would have concentrated solely on the comic exploits of Arcite and Palamon as they chase after the woman of their dreams.
Instead, this bloated production, directed by Blanche McIntyre, is allowed to drift to a full 155 minutes by the addition of peripheral, less interesting, sidebars.
It is set in one of those stagy nether times. The costumes, often a pointer, are a bizarre mix of metro-male chic, Michael Jackson military, and peculiar designs for the women that includes tattoos, Converse trainers, ugly golden helmets and a fair bit of black leather.
In one scene Hyppolyta (Allison McKenzie, often unclear with a strong Scottish accent) accompanies her weird and wacky apparel with a fetching chainsaw. A badminton racquet and a golf bag are also used as props.
The laughs are laid on with a trowel in some places and none more so than during the bizarre, and rather surreal, Morris Dancing scene where the performers, led by a Hyacinth Bucket character (Sally Bankes), joust with oversized phalluses and indulge in a bit of rumpy pumpy – with one dressed as a baboon.
Sex plays a big part in this story. Our two noble beefcakes both claim Emilia, Hyppolyta’s sister, as their own and will do anything, including a fight to the death, to have her.
“I saw her first!” expclaims a petulant and angry Palamon as Arcite gets first crack at the prize.
However neither have bothered to ask whether Emilia (Frances McNamee) wants to be married. She seems more aroused by her maid. Meanwhile the male lover of the henpecked Theseus looks like he will end up being shared in a threesome. It’s all rather racy for Shakespeare – though not, I suspect, for Fletcher.
The fight scenes, directed by Kate Waters, are well executed by Wilkes and Corrigan and involve cage fighting and intense, very Samurai-influenced, swordplay.
This disappointing play doesn’t feel or sound much like anything else in Shakespeare’s canon until a scene of pure poetry where both Arcite and Palamon eloquently and articulately put their petitions for the sapphic Emilia before the gods.
All credit to the RSC for including The Two Noble Kinsmen in its anniversary year of productions but, had Shakespeare lived longer, I’m guessing he would have distanced himself from both John Fletcher and this heavy-handed and awkward comedy.
The Two Noble Kinsmen plays, in rep, in the Swan Theatre until February 7.
The Two Noble Kinsmen
Disappointing and uneven, The Two Noble Kinsmen does, nonetheless, contain two fine performances from the buffed up James Corrigan and Jamie Wilkes.