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The Two Noble Kinsmen
Tom Patterson Theatre
By William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
Directed by David Latham

Play summary | Globe and Mail review

From the program:

Taken prisoner in a war against Thebes, two Athenian cousins, Palamon and Arcite, find solace in the thought that their friendship will endure for ever. But when, through the window of their cell, they both catch sight of the lovely Emilia, the bonds of kinship soon turn to deadly rivalry in love.

The Globe and Mail's review:

Too much tragedy, not enough Bard
Tuesday, July 16, 2002 Print Edition, Page R2

Rating: **

Along with a very rare opportunity to see the last play in which Shakespeare had a hand, the Stratford Festival's production of The Two Noble Kinsmenoffers one wondrous moment of theatre in the midst of this rightfully neglected script.

It occurs toward the end of the action when the jailer's daughter, who has released the captive nobleman Palamon, has gone mad with her unrequited love for him. In a confrontation with her father and his colleagues, she cries out at them as though they were hands on a ship, and in an attempt to humour the poor girl, they obey her commands. On the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre, where director David Latham is mounting this production with graduates of the Stratford Conservatory program of which he is the principal, the men make a ship of their bodies and carry Deborah Hay's poignantly fragile version of the madwoman away on their backs. It's an image of her delusion so touching that it brought spontaneous applause at Friday's opening night.

Latham explains in the program notes that a 17th-century audience would have seen her madness as comic, but that today it must be portrayed more sympathetically, in a sadder light. He considers the play -- which Shakespeare is believed to have co-authored in 1613 with John Fletcher -- a tragicomedy, and the director's subtle work in the scenes surrounding the jailer's daughter establish that tone beautifully. As she falls for Palamon, Hay makes the daughter's love a silly and overeager passion. Thom Marriott's waddling and saucer-eyed jailer is dressed as a clown in a cheery, red-leather coat that covers his greatly padded belly; in the forest, his daughter encounters a troop of players led by Michael Therriault as a pompous little scholar. And yet it is in the midst of these nameless characters that Latham finds the only truly moving material of the play, as the mad daughter eventually accepts the kind kisses of her former wooer (Michael Schultz), who will pretend he is Palamon to comfort her. Hay and Schultz make them a pair shot through with pathos, part clown and all emotion.

If only Latham could reverse this trick and infuse more comedy into the central plot of the play, which proves an increasingly leaden event. Scholars can pick out which bits Shakespeare wrote -- he is credited with the first and final acts -- but the play lacks much of the poetic speechifying and depth of character that we associate with the canon into which The Two Noble Kinsmenwas only accepted in the 20th century. And to judge from its scant productions (Stratford did a workshop of an abridged version in 1985; Toronto's Shakespeare in the Rough performed the play in Withrow Park in 1997) there's no great movement to revive it theatrically.

Fletcher is believed to have invented the subplot about the jailer's daughter, but the main story is based on The Knight's Tale from Chaucer. The play begins as Theban cousins Palamon (Rami Posner) and Arcite (Brendan Murray) go to war against the Athenians, led by Duke Theseus (Jonathan Goad), only to wind up as his captives. From the window of their prison, they spy Emilia (Michelle Giroux), the sister of Theseus's wife, and fall instantly in love with her. As they are released from prison, their exalted male bond gives way to deadly rivalry.

At first, this all rather charming. Whether appearing graciously at court or gossiping with her sister Hippolyta (Jane Spence), Giroux's Emilia is bright and elegant with a mouthful of well-spoken poetry. Posner and Murray are comically familiar as they reveal how the grand intentions of the young Thebans give way to adolescent boasting and bickering. Meanwhile, David Gaucher's design for the show is startling and intriguing: The back of the stage is set with a forest of metal spikes; the front features a pool of water from which a statue of a horse emerges as though climbing to shore; the action opens with three widowed queens petitioning Theseus in huge black gowns that give their grief a billowing life of its own.

But once Posner and Murray have impressively danced their way through the battle of swords and staffs choreographed by James Binkley and John Stead, the play begins to wear out its welcome. One tires of both the young men's angry declarations and of Emilia's earnest attempts to choose; Posner and Murray can't give any physical presence to the nobility everyone is continually attributing to their characters, while Giroux's Emilia grows shrill. Not surprisingly, this young company can make nothing of a love between a woman and two men with whom she has barely exchanged three lines.

And as Gaucher packs in the cultural references, from Greek gowns and breast-exposing leather vests for the ladies to Japanese armour for the men, one also begins to lose one's physical place in this fantastical yet militaristic world. When I should have been gasping and sighing over the fate of Emilia and her would-be lovers, all I could wonder was whether that horse would ever manage to get out of the pool.

The Two Noble Kinsmen runs in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford, Ont., to Sept. 29. For information: 800-567-1600. Back to main theatre page

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