I wasn’t expecting much from this 1983 BBC TV version at all.
Firstly, because The Two Gentlemen of Verona is rarely performed; it’s ranking in the Shakespeare Premier League is right down in the bottom three (along with ‘Pericles’, and The Merry Wives of Windsor’) seen as a relegation zone candidate.
Secondly, because the ending is by all accounts an absurdly distasteful cop out.
Thirdly, because reviews of this BBC effort rate it ‘irredeemably tame’, ‘shallow’, ‘ awful’, ‘to be avoided’.
But it’s not too bad. I didn’t find it terrible. More mediocre than awful. Not a dog anyway.
It’s actually got a dog in it. That’s it’s USP: the Shakespearean play with the dog in it.
The dog is called Crab and the joke is he’s supposed to be a crabby sour-natured cur, but is actually an endearingly sweet muffled moggie (as you can see in that pic)
I saw this Two Gents in conjunction with watching the 2014 online transmission live from the RSC. That had the fizz and energy that this anodyne Beeb lacked. (I’ll review that separately).
This was directed by Don Taylor as part of the BBC attempt to produce a definitive TV archive of all Shakespeare’s plays. By ‘definitive’ here is meant a safe treatment of, and orthodox reading of, the plays as straight to mouth texts. And that’s how this play ‘plays: fairly conventional, pretty, but pretty tame, dramatically dull.
The studio settings are theatrically staged (the whole 36 play cycle was produced on a shoestring budget) conceived as a ‘Garden of Courtly Love’ in which the various lovers could conduct their trysts.
This Romeo and Juiletish balcony scene of Proteus singing his sexy socks off up to Silvia exemplifies how sensitively, and minimally, created the production is. I couldn’t understand very clearly what was being meant, but at least it looked pretty.
Not understanding what the hell is going on, is an occupational hazard of any non-knowing Shakesperean numpty (like me) And I struggled to comprehend predictably, and frequently, watching this. The lines were rat a tatted like a loco motive, being rapidly recited rather than vibrantly embodied or engagingly enacted. And despite the addition of subtitled text at the bottom of the screen, it was difficult to unravel what was being said exactly, or meant especially. Far too fast. Way too static. This is just the kind of obtruse heady textual reading of the play that has put me off Shakespeare for the last 40 years.
But I suppose after a while, after about an hour, I got ground down into the grind of the rhythm of it. My ears gradually acclimatized to the tune of it. Or maybe I simply gave up trying to concentrate too hard to understand everything and let the general sense of it wash over me like lutey music.
And the music is quite pleasant, quite pleasing in a way. It sounds sweet. It feels melodious.Yes, I”l let it wash over me like a sprinkly fountain. I’ll stop trying to apply common-sense, common-place, everyday, levels of comprehension to any of this.
I said earlier that I didn’t think the words were being engagingly embodied and enacted. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t ‘acting’ going on. There was quite a bit of theatrical acting of the declamatory style going on. In particular, this clown, sorry I meant to say ‘actor’, Frank Barrie, gave Sir Eglamour some serious thespian welly.
It was theatrical eyebrows and absurd gurns all the way with Frank. Entertaining, with possibly unintentional, but highly advertent, comic value of the farcical kind. In other words, he hammed it up like a good old old-school Old Vic luvvie pro.
Most of the cast didn’t do much for me. I’d never heard, or seen, the 2 male leads before: Tyler Butterworth (Proteus) and John Hudson (Valentino) I suppose as Two Gentlemen is considered second-rate Shakespeare you get second division actors to fill in. Paul Daneman did good disdain as the Duke of Milan; Tony Haygarth seemed suitably paunchily cast as Launce, although his childish side-kick Speed (Nicholas Kaby) was positively irritating. The comedy was lame, the sexual innuendo limp. Probably due to commercial considerations; the intention being to give a seriously straight-laced and straightforward rendition of the play suitable for sell on to schools and colleges.
Tessa Peake-Jones as Julie gave the most affectingly moving performance.
I sympathized with her because she suffers the most injustice, the most hurt. Proteus dumps her. And then she has to be the silent witness to all his monkeyboy machinations with the brand new love of his life (Sylvia)
Proteus is a shit. A conniving self-serving shit. He dumps Julia. He betrays his so called best friend Valentino. And then he wants to rape Sylvia. And yet Tyler Butterworth doesn’t really make Proteus seem shitty enough. He’s played too pleasingly pleasant. Not enough nasty bastard in him. Maybe that’s the problem; if you go all out to portray Proteus as the nasty shit he is, you can’t then reel him back in the final scene; if he’s gone way beyond the pale, he’s beyond sympathy, beyond forgiveness, he’s irredeemable.
The all too easy reconciliation in the final scene, where Valentino is offering his woman (Sylvia) to his mate, the mate that has just tried to rape her, is inexplicable (to our modern sensibilities) And the quick turn around and get back together of Proteus with Julia just makes you go Ugh? Eh?. Why would she have him back? Is she merely a passive dupe, a dopey doormat? This isn’t love – it’s co-dependent victim behaviour. He’s an arsehole, stop needing him, get rid. (We all want to say. I do)
Yes, the final scene brings this whole play down. And fatally ruins it. I can see why its tricky, and possibly impossible, to redeem it. The 2 Gentlemen of Verona aren’t gallant courtly lovers. They’re a pair of immature misogynists.
So there you have it. A seriously stolid production of the play. Pretty, but pallid. Something that pales in the memory as lacking energy, vibrancy, fizz, pizzazz. It’s hardly, barely, amusing.
The most memorable thing about it is the dog. Woof! Woof!
So begins my long journey through all 36 plays of Shakespeare. Many films will be from this cycle the BBC dutifully produced between 1978-1984. The quality, apparently, is variable. There’s a ‘definitive’ and distinctly stale air of stuffy orthodoxy and bland conservatism about the whole enterprise; of which this pallid production is a stultifying example. Fortunately, I’ve got other filmed versions of the plays to do some compare and contrast evaluation. These ‘faithful’ faith-bound BBC readings or renderings, are all too predictably approaching Shakespeare as a sacrosanct holy text, to be undeviated from, and to be spoken in the reverential tones of the all too easily converted.
Dir: Don Taylor, UK
It gets a rather tepid 5/10