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The Two Gentlemen of Verona review: ‘Theatrical rom-com’

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is almost always referred to as one of Shakespeare’s ‘early’ plays: an apologetic slant which does the play no justice. Gregory Doran’s production – furnished with the best talent OUDS has to offer – camps up the play into a masterful tableau of theatrical rom-com.

The play follows the two friends, Valentine (Will Shackleton) and Proteus (Rob Wolfreys), leaving Verona to live it up in Milan. Both set their eyes on Silvia (Rosie Mahendra), problematically for Proteus, who betrays his bestie and his ‘back-home’ girlfriend, Julia (Lilia Kanu) to do so.

Setting the scene somewhere in the not-too-distant past, with a live jazz-band playing Smooth Radio-esque scores and sunset lighting, the production boasted resonances of year-abroad antics and all the romance of an Italian summer. Think The Talented Mr Ripley, without (as much of) “the gay stuff”. The age-old issue of making Shakespeare relevant to a modern audience was remedied well by crafting a production which felt so relatable, yet still timeless in its golden age charm.

Doran’s production manifestly plays upon the play’s juvenile protagonists and its status as a work of Shakespeare’s juvenilia. Wolfreys as Proteus, a student (yes, in Shakespeare’s original too), stumbles over his lines and mixes up his metaphors as he blusters about in trying to express his love. The delivery worked excellently as a reconciliation of Shakespeare’s early, less-polished prosody with the unrefined, even selfish youthfulness of the character. Shackleton as Valentine balanced Wolfreys well, giving an equally charming performance as a young man of society uncomfortably thrust into the role of heroic lover.

Mahendra as Silvia acted well as a bastion of true love, shooing away unwanted admirers in hopeful favour of her ‘meant-to-be’. Kanu as Julia displayed excellent versatility across the play, swinging from the familiar figure of the slightly embarrassed lover to the defiant, yet heartbroken woman scorned.

Perhaps the defining feature of Two Gentleman is the character of Crab, a role taken up in this production by the spaniel Rocky. Crab, and his owner Launce (Jo Rich) were a dynamic duo that offered comedy, as well as useful points of reflection upon the main plot. I have never encountered a dog with such excellent comedic timing – whether his sporadic running offstage was ad libbed or intentional I cannot tell.

Standout performances were delivered by the exceptionally versatile Jake Robertson (as the Duke of Milan) – whose rendition of Mambo Italiano was one of the many perfectly choreographed set pieces which defined the production for me – and by Leah Aspden (as Lucetta), whose delivery was, as always, wonderfully hilarious.

The placement of the interval divided the play into two generically distinct halves which were balanced out by a wonderfully panto interval-act involving a Hinge profile analysis. In reconciling the all-too-happy ending of Shakespeare’s original with our modern-day sensibilities around pretty awful men (Proteus), the second half grew desperately serious and disjunct from the first. The effect was disruptive, yet poignant, and allowed Mahendra and Kanu to dominate the second half with powerful, yet sympathetic performances in a way that Shakespeare’s writing often denies its female characters.

Doran’s stint as the University’s visiting professor of contemporary theatre has shone a light of ‘real’ drama into the world of OUDS. Imbued with talented performances, and a really, really cute dog, Shakespeare’s most unloved comedy has been redeemed.

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