Valentine: In conclusion, I stand affected to her.
Speed: I would you were set, so your affection would cease.
Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, II.i.79-81
It feels sacrilegious to say it while sitting in the foyer of the National Theatre in London (I’m here to see Collaborators with Simon Russell Beale, which I justified academically by spending all morning in the British Library looking at playtexts from the early 1600s, and because tickets were only five quid and Simon Russell Beale can do anything, even make Stalin funny), but the rehearsal process for Two Gentlemen of Verona has so far confirmed what I always sort of suspected:
When in doubt about the meaning of a Shakespeare line, it is probably a sex joke.
And don’t think I haven’t done my research looking for hidden subtleties in lines like:
Speed: Why then, how stands the matter with them?
Launce: Marry, this: when it stands well with him, it stands well with her.
I did just spend an hour riffling through every book on directing in the National’s bookshop, only to discover that most of what’s there is about choosing a play, casting a play, and the initial rehearsal, so I probably ought to have read them a month ago. But I can’t suddenly become cultured and professional now. It would give my cast a heart attack.
There’s no denying that Two Gents is a crass play, full of sarcastic servants and boorish servants, gangster outlaws, and not-particularly-convincing cross-dressing. It’s full of young people meeting other young people. Of course it’s about sex.
A friend asked me why I even picked Two Gents, given my obsession with really human, realistic characters. It’s certainly a far cry from my last stint directing, Brian Friel’s Translations in Trinity 2010. And it’s an early work. We can see the foundations being laid for Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night, but Shakespeare’s not quite there yet when he writes Two Gents. He’s a decent playwright, but a little more time and practice are required for him to ascend to god-like status. But there’s something about the way Two Gents depicts young people going to a new place, getting caught up in the glamour and excitement of it, and losing track of who they are and what they value; I have a suspicion that many Oxford students can relate.
So what do we do with all these sex jokes? Do we trust the audience to get them on their own, even when the slang is five hundred years out of date? Do we highlight them with a physical gesture? Or will that just turn the play into a bizarre marathon of thrusting hips and suggestively raised eyebrows? Given that Two Gents has a lot of wooing, a little fighting, an attempted rape, and three different outlaw attacks, it’s certainly a physical play in its own right. In an attempt get the cast to be willing to snog/fight/hug/lean on one another, I’ve introduced both a weird game that is like tag but ends up with spooning other cast members who are crouched in the foetal position, and my personal favourite, the Huggy Bear Game. The cast undertook these exercises in remarkably good humour, with only minimal jokes about me being a lunatic.
All through school I wanted to be an actor, until one day I realised that I love acting but often couldn’t stand actors, so I certainly couldn’t cope with them surrounding me for the rest of my life. The egos, the conflicts, the rivalries, and the drama: So. Much. Drama. But theatre always pulls you back in (I’m seriously contemplating a heroin addiction as a healthier alternative), and the Two Gents cast is a fun, down-to-earth bunch. Aside from the days when a certain leading man just doesn’t show up to rehearsal and I sort of want to strangle him, or when I have to ask an actor to ‘say that again, but at least a little bit like you mean it’, and despite my terror regarding Wednesday’s first run-through, I do love the Two Gents cast.
And luckily, the Two Gents cast finds Shakespeare’s sex jokes as funny as I do.
Kate O’Connor is the director for Barbarian Productions’ The Two Gentlemen of Verona to be performed May 1st-5th in Christ Church Cathedral Gardens, complete with penis jokes. Tune in next week for an actor’s perspective, and for more information about Two Gents visit their website, www.barbarian-productions.com, or follow them on twitter @twogentsox.