2002, 50th Anniversary Season
by William Shakespeare & John Fletcher
"The Excitement of a Rarity"
Finally, in its 50th season the Stratford Festival has mounted a full production of "The Two Noble Kinsmen", the last play in which Shakespeare had a hand. The rarity of the event alone is recommendation enough for anyone interested in Shakespeare. The production itself is flawed, the director has seriously miscalculated how the subplot should be played and not all the young actors are up to their parts. But the opportunity to see this play at all, and on the intimate Tom Patterson stage, should override any objections.
When the Festival was founded "Kinsmen" did not appear in editions of Shakespeare's collected works. Now, largely through a greater understanding of the Bard's late plays, "Kinsmen" is listed as the fifth of Shakespeare's Romances, a group that includes "Pericles", "Cymbeline", "The Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest". That we have come to see them as a group at all is due in no small measure to the work of Northrop Frye, who saw in all of them the forces of comedy overcoming tragedy with the aid of magic or through divine intervention. "The Tempest" is often taught as Shakespeare's "farewell to the stage", but in fact Shakespeare went on to collaborate with John Fletcher, the most popular playwright of the day, on at least two more extant plays, "Henry VIII" (1612) and "Kinsmen" (1614). When we read in program notes that Shakespeare is thought to have written only Act 1, Act 3, scene 1 and most of Act 5, we have to realize that Shakespeare has also collaborated with Fletcher on the overall course of the action.
What emerges is a fascinating play. The story for the main plot comes from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" in his "Canterbury Tales". During a war that Theseus of Athens is waging against Thebes, two Theban cousins, Palamon and Arcite are captured and imprisoned. Their lifelong friendship is disrupted when first Palamon, then Arcite, sees and instantly falls in love with Emilia, sister to Theseus' wife Hippolyta. Meanwhile their jailer's daughter has fallen in love with Palamon. When Arcite is freed and exiled, she helps Palamon to escape. Lost, knowing the hopelessness of her love and fearing the consequences of her actions, she goes mad. The conflict of the two kinsmen eventually is resolved by Theseus' decree that the two will fight a public duel. The winner will receive the hand of Emilia; the loser will be executed.
What lovers of Shakespeare will relish is the reappearance of situations and themes from the whole of Shakespeare's canon. The authors revisit "Two Gentlemen of Verona", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Twelfth Night", "Hamlet", "All's Well That Ends Well", "Measure for Measure", "Macbeth" and "Coriolanus", just to name the most obvious cases, as if they intentionally fashioned the plot to reflect Shakespeare's past achievements.
I first encountered the play in a production at Sheridan College in Oakville in 1997. Using only student actors that production proved to me how powerful this rarity can be in the right hands. Director David Latham's production simply does not dig deep enough into the play. The pity is that newcomers to "Kinsmen" will assume the superficiality lies in the work and not in the direction. In the main plot he has misunderstood the character of Emilia. She is not a nun, but like Isabella in "Measure for Measure" she has no desire to marry. She seeks female company not male. Yet, in Latham's production she acquiesces without demur when Theseus decides to make her the prize in the kinsmen's duel. As I saw at Sheridan her lines can be read with great bitterness and resentment showing that the kinsmen's tragedy has now become hers.
Worse, Latham launches the subplot involving the Jailer's Daughter, the prime female role in the play, in precisely the wrong direction. In his notes Latham says that the "Daughter's madness is a dark stand" and "we can't make it funny", yet that is exactly what he does. The Jailer's Daughter is a more extended look at Ophelia and poses the question of what would happen if Ophelia had been rescued from drowning. The answer is that she becomes a constant reminder of fate's injustice. By trying to make her funny Latham removes this pathos and muddies the parallel with the main plot. When he cannot avoid the text's serious portrayal of her in the latter acts, Latham tries to make her father comic even though he ought to be distressed by what has happened. Latham has not coordinated his view well with choreographer Donna Feore, who allows the Daughter to execute complicated dance steps flawlessly when she becomes a last-minute recruit to entertain Theseus, even though she is mad and has only just joined the dancers.
The cast is composed entirely of past participants in the Stratford Festival Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. The "Henry VI" plays were largely populated by them and it is to Latham's credit that they all give much finer performances in "Kinsmen" than they did under Leon Rubin in the "Henrys". The smaller roles are all well cast. Michael Therriault makes a genial Speaker of the Prologue and Epilogue and tries on different hats (literally) as the comic Schoolmaster and the serious Doctor who devises the means to cure the Jailer's Daughter. In the main plot Jonathan Goad is a commanding Theseus and Jane Spence is an imposing Hippolyta. Both are excellent at showing in different ways that might should be tempered by mercy. Haysam Kadri gives Theseus' friend Pirithous a nobility that makes him much more than a subsidiary character. Ieva Lucs, Tara Hughes and Samantha Espie are all effective as the three widowed queens.
The difficulty lies with three of the four main roles. As Palamon, Rami Posner is very forceful but he doesn't seem able to make sense of what he is saying. On the other hand, Brendan Murray has excellent diction and speaks his lines with intelligence. What he needs is better voice control and should work at creating a more resonant tone. Together they make the scene where they arm each other before their duel one of the emotional high points of the drama. Michelle Giroux has not been directed to find greater depth in Emilia, but that doesn't explain why she seems to sleepwalk through the role.
In the subplot Thom Marriott is excellent as the Jailer. It's a pity Latham does not allow him to give the character a greater emotional arc since it's clear Marriott could do it. Michael Schultz makes the role of the Wooer something special. He creates a gentle comedy about the character as if he were the one always chosen last for the team and who knows his meekness is what makes his love for the Jailer's Daughter unrequited. It is this kind of detail that is required in all the roles to show the play in the best light. As the Jailer's Daughter, Deborah Hay has the most coveted role in the play. The wavering, childlike voice she uses would seem perfect for a character who is mad for most of the action. How sad then that Latham should constantly seek laughs at her character's expense without allowing Hay to arouse the sense pain and pity that give the play its depth.
In 1986 the RSC opened its new Swan Theatre with its first-ever production of "Kinsmen" and set it in samurai Japan. Now for Stratford's first-ever full production designer David Gaucher does the same. The notion seems to be that the samurai are the only warrior culture a Western audience understands. For me the more logical approach would be to research the warrior culture in ancient Greece where the play is set. To be fair Gaucher's design references range far beyond Japan to China, Tibet, Mongolia and the Middle East. And his costumes are spectacular. His set makes the upstage area a forest of spears that serves as the prison, the woods and Athenian bastions. Downstage is a pool from which a statue of a horse emerges halfway on land, an allusion to the legendary founding of Athens.
Michael J. Whitfield has lit the show with great sensitivity to the mood of each scene. His effects for the responses of the gods Mars and Venus are dazzling. Too bad Latham did not choose to show Diana's response also as a lighting effect. Keith Thomas has composed the highly effective music with influences from China and Tibet that does as much as the costuming to exoticize the action.
My great fear is that having at last presented "The Two Noble Kinsmen", Stratford will let the play sit on the shelf for another 50 years. It shouldn't matter that Shakespeare did not write every line but that he saw fit to collaborate on the work at the end of his career. The current production, lavish as it is, does not plumb all of the play's depths and it would be good to allow future directors a chance to do so. The role of the Jailer's Daughter is such an amazing showpiece, it would be a pity to deny future young actors the chance to play it. Let's hope that Stratford schedules "Kinsmen" as least as often as Shakespeare's other romances to give more people a glimpse into this dark meditation on human will and destiny that may be Shakespeare's final farewell.
© 2002 Christopher Hoile