Lennox Theatre, Riverside, March 14, 2013
What a broad church the World Shakespeare Festival that surrounded last year’s London Olympic Games must have been. This two-hand production of Two Gentlemen of Verona by the British-based Two Gents Productions was part of it, with its elements of circus, vaudeville, pantomime, mime and the vibrant theatrical traditions of Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Two Gents actually consists three gents: actors Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu from Zimbabwe and director Arne Pohlmeier from South Africa. They have dismembered Shakespeare’s play, something that is usually done for the flimsiest of reasons, and often to draw attention to the director-as-celebrity cult rather to illuminate the play.
That is not the case here. Whatever liberties have been taken with the text – and they are many, including translating segments into Shona – the production retains a fierce, vital, bubbling theatricality that may well carry echoes of Elizabethan performance. Broad humour, high energy and improvised interaction with the audience would have all helped Shakespeare’s comedy to carry the day before a beer-swilling afternoon crowd at the Globe 400 years ago, and they went a long way to seducing a rather more polite audience in modern Parramatta.
Restored, too, were the layers of humour that Shakespeare built into what happened when an all-male cast takes the roles of women who then masquerade as men. Chikura had much fun with this double-drag routine in playing Julia. Munyevu, meanwhile, unleashed – if you’ll pardon me – his comic flair in becoming Launce’s dog.
Pohlheimer has a head-high rope across the back of an empty stage. The players arrive lugging a chest, from which they extract assorted scarves, gloves, vests, hats and so on. They toss these wisps of costume over the rope, and draw them on to delineate the 15 characters as the play unfolds.
This was the first of Shakespeare’s love-story comedies, and the plot is not overly convoluted (by comparison with some later efforts!), so even an unfamiliar audience has half a chance of keeping track of who’s who and a sketchy idea of the story. To help the cause Chikura and Munyevu cheerfully recapitulate what is has been happening a couple of times.
The real interest, however, lies in their two performances. Shakespeare becomes a kind of incidental vehicle for a broad, two-hour entertainment. On this level it is funny, clever (in many ways) and occasionally touching theatre. For purists too much of the Bard may go missing in the helter-skelter, but at least this time it is in a good cause.