The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 23 January 2014


Another BBC Shakespeare review, dating back to 2006 when some of the references in it were topical.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

What a lovely, sweet, silly play. It's short, daft, funny and romantic.

What's it about? It's kind of a precursor to Romeo and Juliet - it's all about that sudden burst of life-or-death romantic earnest that hits you during your adolescence. You know the drill, it's the combination of adolescent self-importance, a body on a hormonal spin cycle and the magical, joyous discovery of that your rude bits have a second setting.

Okay, to non-participants, it's very annoying. All that 'Love you.' 'Love you.' 'You put the phone down first.' 'No, you.' 'No, you.' 'Love you.' 'Love you.' 'How about we both put the phone down together?' 'Alright.' 'Five-four-three-two-one' '...' '...' 'Are you still there?' 'Yes.' 'Me too.' nonsense.

At least, that's what it was like in my day. Nowadays kids are probably too busy texting each other pictures of their genitals being 'happy slapped' before organising a 'daisychain' with a turkey twizzler.

The play concerns two sickening adolescents of Verona, Valentine and Proteus. Proteus is madly in love with Julia, and she is madly in love with him. Valentine thinks this is all a bit nauseating so off he sods to Milan (with his comedy servant, Speed). Proteus follows shortly afterwards (with his comedy servant, Launce).

At Milan, Valentine falls in love with Sylvia. Again, this is all a bit sickening. And then Proteus arrives and also falls in love with Sylvia, forgetting all his 'oaths' to Julia. However, Sylvia's father, the Duke of Milan, wants her to marry Thurio. Who is played by the hoarse David Collings. ("The. Fence. Is. Not. On. Offer!")

Valentine tries to get into Sylvia's balcony using a rope ladder. However, scheming, Proteus has dobbed him in (as they say in Neighbours) to the Duke and Valentine is exiled to the woods. In the woods, Valentine meets a gang of bandits who force him to, er, become their leader.

Meanwhile, back in Verona, Julia's got a bit fed up of waiting for Proteus, and decides to go looking for him in Milan. However, the route between Verona and Milan is dangerous - there are bandits in the woods, remember - so she decides to dress as a boy.

I strongly suspect this sort of thing may happen in other Shakespeare plays too.

Julia (dressed a boy) arrives at Milan just in time to see her love, Proteus, serenading his new love, Sylvia. He's there with a guitar singing Year 3000 by the Busted boys - in the future we all live underwater with triple-breasted women, apparently.

I'm joking, but this is a heartrending scene. A truly beautiful piece of quill from Shakey.

The next day, Proteus sacks his comedy servant, Launce, and decides to get a new servant - who is, and you're probably way ahead of me, his ex-girlfriend Julia dressed as a boy. To Whom, it must be said, he seems to be Strangely Attracted (this boy clearly would not make a good politician). Anyway, he gets his ex-girlfriend who is dressed as a boy to deliver a love note to his new love Sylvia. It's the sort of mistake we've all made at some point or other.

This is all quite moving, actually. Julia almost accidentally gives Sylvia one of her own old love-notes from Proteus. I was kind of hoping they would then ‘lez up’ but they don't.

Anyway, Sylvia is betrothed to Thurio... but she decides to do a runner instead with her comedy servant, Eglamour. They run into the forest, followed by the Duke and Thurio, followed by Proteus, followed by Julia, all in one long chase...

...yes, it's basically the end sequence of The Benny Hill Show...

...and in the forest they are all caught by the bandits. Valentine meets his old mate Proteus, who apologises for dobbing him, and Valentine forgives him. Julia reveals to Proteus that she is, in fact, a girl with a Girl's Bits, and he decides he wants to marry her instead of Sylvia. Thurio's gone off Sylvia in the meantime, so the Duke of Milan decides to give his consent to her marrying Valentine, and Valentine consents if he and his fellow bandits are pardoned and given jobs. Everyone’s a winner.

Well, I never said it was going to be plausible. That last scene is a bit of a mess, but this is very early Shakespeare - which means that the dialogue is comparatively concise, so there aren't any opportunities for people to paper over lapses in plot logic with long soliloquies explaining why they are doing something that may outwardly appear to be entirely out of character.

I like the brevity of this play. Admittedly the characters are all resolutely 2-dimensional, but in a comedy I don't think that matters a great deal; all that matters is that the audience of the Rose or the Globe or wherever can giggle at the sight of a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy. And what's wrong with that?

What else makes this a conspicuously 'early' work is that there a couple of minor continuity errors (characters knowing things they haven't been told yet) and the characters of Speed and Launce rather get forgotten towards the end. This is a shame, because Launce in particular is great fun - he's very much the Mark Benton role - with his anecdotes about his mother's breath smelling like an old boot and his dog pissing under the table in the Duke's dining hall (and, to save the dog from execution, Launce has to then tell all assembled that he was the one who pissed under the table!). And I'm sure it was hilarious to have a real live dog on stage - that sort of thing always goes down well with the kids. Well, it did in my day. Nowadays they are probably too busy texting each other pictures of daisychains and happy-slapping each other with turkey twizzlers.

There's a kind of a Press Gang feel to this play, as the writer is so keen to impress that it is quite disorientating how many jokes there are. It is, relentlessly, all jokes. Bang bang bang bang bang. Which is why Shakey hasn't bothered much with characterisation, he's too busy thinking up the next
wacky misunderstanding over a pun - 'tied/tide' etc.

Now, it's all too easy in this modern day of ours with the internet and 24-hour pizza delivery to mock Mr Shakey and his Anghelides-like faith in the humour value of puns. Because nowadays that sort of thing rarely makes us laugh - occasionally a Really Good Pun we haven't heard before will make us sigh ('Frasier, I could have told you you were getting into a difficult aria'), but that's about it.

But my feeling is that back in the 16th century, the English language was still very fresh and flux-y, and these puns would have had more novelty value. They may seem like hoary old jokes to us, but back then, those people hadn't heard them before. They would have been wetting themselves with laughter at Launce pointing out that his walking stick understands him - or 'stands under' him. There would not have been a dry bottom in the house.

So I say embrace Shakey and his feeble wordplay. Get thee to the punnery!

What else strikes? There's some casual anti-Semitism - I think Jew is used as an insult in some of the Henry VI's too, and maybe Shrew, but after that I think Shakespeare realised that he could sell more tickets if he didn't piss off the guys with all the money.

Incidentally, I'm currently wading through Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare. F*ck me, it's hard work. I loved his book on Dickens but this is just unreadable - the amount of unsupported hypothesising and mind-bogglingly irrelevant trivia. Chapter 5 is dedicated to the fact that one of the bridges in Stratford dates back to Shakespeare's time - maybe, Peter hypothesizes, Shakespeare was thinking of that very bridge when he wrote the famous 'bridge' speech in Pericles Prince of Tyre. Yeah, whatevs, Pete.

As for the production...well, it's a bit camp. It's like that episode of Swiss Toni where the car showroom is made gay. This is a slightly off-putting, I don't want to see children sprayed gold running around to be cupids.

The cast... well, they are all pretty young things. Tyler Butterworth (son of the monk) as Proteus and John Hudson as Valentine are perfectly good, but possibly not Destined For Great Things. I think it is a mistake to get a little kid to play Speed - he blows all the gags. Unlike Tony Haygarth as Launce who gets it all bang on (only Mark Benton could have done it better). Frank Barrie as Sir Eglamour is frightfully appalling - he seems to think he's on stage, doing so much bad comedy wide-eyed business - he's like the postman from The Young Ones, if anyone remembers that.

Best of all, though, is Tessa Peake-Jones as Julia. She is fantastic, she back-of-the-nets the role. Absolutely in love with her in this. This would, I guess, have been shortly after her appearance as a lizard person in Doctor Who and a few years before she was Raquel in Only Fools And Horses. But she is great.

Anyway, that's it for The Two Horny-As-F*ck Adolescents of Verona - a definite thumbs up, plus it's almost as short as A Comedy of Errors. Next up... it's the play where a bottom is turned into an ass, it's "whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade, he bravely broached his boiling bloody breast", it's the Doctor, Romana and K-9 investigating an underground cave where young boys have been brainwashed by a bright light (and K-9 can be the lion!). Yes, it's a f*cking biggy, it's one we've all seen, it's...

A Midsummer Night's Dream

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