‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ review

Theatre, Shakespeare
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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A sublime morris dancing sequence enlivens this revival of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s sloggy tragicomedy

After the gruelling actor-led experiment that was the season-opening productions of ‘As You Like It’ and ‘Hamlet’, it is a blessed relief to see that Michelle Terry’s Globe hasn’t entirely given up on stuff like sets and directors. This unearthing of the rarely-performed ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ features fine examples of both, in the form of director Barrie Rutter and designer Jessica Worrall, who encrusts the Globe stage in a spongy carpet of moss that mirrors the pastoral eccentricities of this odd tragicomedy.

On the downside, it is still ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’, a pretty hokey co-write from pals William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Adapted from Chaucer’s ‘The Knight’s Tale’ (the first part of ‘The Canterbury Tales’), it wasn’t published till years after both its authors’ deaths and tends not to be performed much, for fairly sound reasons.

The titular Kinsmen are two Grecian BFFs and cousins, Palamon and Arcite, who are taken prisoner by King Theseus and his queen Hippolyta (yup, the same ones in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, kind of). Long story short, the two pals both fall in love with Theseus’s sister-in-law Emilia (Ellora Torchia), bitterly fall out over her and, er, decide to fight to the death with the winner getting to marry her. And that’s the more sensitive bit of the story. In the subplot, the unnamed Jailer’s Daughter goes literally mad with longing for Palamon, and spends much of the play wandering around the forest while out of her wits.

In its blithe misogyny, ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ verges on being as problematic as the more popular ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ or ‘The Merchant of Venice’, only without the redeeming feature of being a good play. And Rutter hasn’t exactly gone to town trying to square the circle here. Emilia’s obvious exasperation at the plan to have two strangers beat each other to death for the chance to win her hand doesn’t really alter the fact that it all actually happens. And though Francesca Mills has undeniably solid comic chops as the Jailer’s Daughter, she can do nothing to stop the character being a rather distasteful figure of fun.

But: did I mention the morris dancing? Picking up on the actual references in Shakespeare’s text (reminder: it is set in Ancient Greece, but whatever), what this production really feels like is that Rutter took the job on because he wanted to do a whacking great morris dancing scene just before the interval. Frankly, he pulls it off in style: the extended Ye Olde English song-and-dance sequence kind of looks like Busby Berkeley directing ‘The Wicker Man’ and it’s genuinely sublime (there are wonderfully lurid costumes from Worrall too). Too bad it couldn't be the entire show, but it certainly wrestles a minor victory out of a play that obstinately refuses to be a masterpiece.

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