Stage Door Review 2024

The Two Noble Kinsmen

Tuesday, January 30, 2024


The Two Noble Kinsmen

by William Shakespeare & John Fletcher, directed by James Wallis

Shakespeare Bash’d, The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West, Toronto

January 25 to February 4, 2024

Arcite: We are one another’s wife, ever begetting

New births of love; we are father, friends, acquaintance;

We are, in one another, families;

I am your heir, and you are mine.

Shakespeare Bash’d is offering Torontonians the rare opportunity to see The Two Noble Kinsmen, one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays. Kinsmen is one of two surviving plays that Shakespeare wrote in collaboration with John Fletcher (1579-1625), one of the most popular playwrights of the period. The first was Henry VIII in 1612 followed by Kinsmen in 1613. Both thus follow The Tempest (1611), Shakespeare’s last play as sole author. For those who have never seen it, Kinsmen will come as a major surprise. Shakespeare’s comedies often dealt with sexual paradoxes. Think of all the Shakespeare heroines who dress up as men – Imogen, Julia, Portia, Rosalind, Viola. In Kinsmen Shakespeare and Fletcher focus on men and the question whether they can remain true to themselves in terms of sexuality and honour, especially when sexuality and honour are forced to clash. I’m lucky enough to have seen three other productions of Kinsmen, including the Stratford Festival’s first and so far only production in 2002. I can state without hesitation that Shakespeare Bash’d’s production is the best I have seen. The reason is that director James Wallis carefully follows the text and is not afraid to follow it into the strange paths where it leads him. This has resulted in the creation of a vital and fresh production that has clearly energized the entire cast.

As I related in 2002, “The story for the main plot comes from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales (c.1400). 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”.

Kinsmen is considered one of Shakespeare’s “romances”, a term coined by the great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. He applied this term to Shakespeare’s late plays that combine tragedy and comedy and in some way involve the intercession of the supernatural. The romances preceding Kinsmen are Pericles (1609), The Winter’s Tale (1610), Cymbeline (1611) and The Tempest (1611).

The most obvious parallel in Kinsmen to one of the romances is to The Winter’s Tale. It can’t be helped, but audiences always find it very amusing that just after Palamon and Arcite swear eternal love to each other, they both immediately fall in love with Emilia. This may be humorous at the moment, but as the action demonstrates, it is actually the tragic cause of their downfall. But just as the cousins suddenly switch from love of each other to love of Emilia, so in The Winter’s Tale Leontes shifts without warning from love for his wife Hermione and his friend Polixenes to hatred of Hermione and jealousy of Polixenes. In The Winter’s Tale Leontes’ sudden shift is portrayed as a fit that only time can cure.

So, too, is it in Kinsmen. In Chaucer, just after Palamon catches sight of Emilia and falls in love, Arcite says, “Som wikke aspect or disposicioun / Of Saturne, by som constellacioun, / Hath yeven us this”. After the cousins fall out because of their love of Emilia and come to blows, the gods have a council in heaven to decide what to do. There Saturn, god of time, consults with his daughter Venus and her lover Mars. It is Saturn’s direct action that ends the feud between the two men. Shakespeare and Fletcher make no allusion to a supernatural cause for the cousins’ predicament, but they do make an allusion to Saturn in its resolution. When Arcite is driving away, his horse rears at a spark his hooves make on the road – “what envious flint, / Cold as old Saturn, and like him possessed / With fire malevolent, darted a spark.”

Also, just as in Chaucer, before Palamon and Arcite fight their public duel, they each and Emilia separately pray to the gods – Arcite to Mars, Palamon to Venus and Emilia to Diana. Each one receives a sign, but, as is always the case with supernatural signs, they read into them what they wish. The references to the gods in both Chaucer and in Kinsmenforce us to view the action within a cosmic context. Frye always made the point that the romances were about the cycle of time which is why they encompass both tragedy and comedy. As it happens, Saturn is the god of time and in The Winter’s Tale, Time is actually a character who introduces himself saying, “it is in my power / To o’erthrow law and in one self-born hour / To plant and o’erwhelm custom”. Though Shakespeare and Fletcher do not mention Saturn as the cause for the cousins’ sudden switch in affection, they do show that this switch causes an insoluble problem that only Time, or as they do say, Saturn, can resolve.

The great advantage of Wallis’s direction over the previous three productions I’ve seen is that he is does not try to ignore what the text says which, contrary to popular opinion of “old plays”, is quite modern in its point of view. First of all, Wallis realizes that Palamon and Arcite’s love for each other – “We are one another’s wife” – is clearly homoerotic and not just a statement of “intense male friendship” as early commentators would have it. Second, Wallis does not try to make the cousins’ sudden shift to heterosexuality appear as a shift to normality. One of his great insights into the play is to show us how both Palamon and Arcite retain a love for each other despite their professed love Emilia. They become much more fascinating characters than in other productions because they are constantly at war within themselves.

For any who think that identifying Palamon and Arcite as gay is a misreading, I would ask them to see how Shakespeare and Fletcher depict Emilia’s view of them. When Emilia looks at pictures of the two she says that Arcite is just like Ganymede and Palamon like Narcissus. Both allusions are to gay characters in Greek mythology. Jupiter fell so in love with the boy Ganymede he took him up to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearer. Narcissus fell so in love with the young man he saw in a pool that he fell in and drowned, not knowing that he was looking at his own reflection.

To bring out further sexual complexities, Wallis clearly notices that Emilia’s love for her now-deceased friend Flavina – is much more than an “intense female friendship”. As Emilia says, “the true love ’tween maid and maid may be / More than in sex dividual.” On this point, Hippolyta says, “If I were ripe for your persuasion, you / Have said enough to shake me from the arm / Of the all-noble Theseus”. Hippolyta, formerly the queen of the warrior women known as Amazons, conquered by Theseus, would naturally be sympathetic to a world without men.

Hippolyta also reveals to Emilia that Theseus loves his friend Pirithous as much as he loves her, “Theseus cannot be umpire to himself, / Cleaving his conscience into twain and doing / Each side like justice, which he loves best”. Later, Theseus on seeing Arcite with Emilia says, “Sister, beshrew my heart, you have a servant / That, if I were a woman, would be master”. Wallis emphasizes rather than glides over such remarks, In doing this he makes clear that Shakespeare and Fletcher are painting a world where nearly everyone is sexually fluid and where people maintain open heterosexual relationships simply because they feel it is what society demands.

The ending of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1602), where Count Orsino marries his page, whom he had previously considered male, as soon as “he” is revealed to be female, already hints at such a critique. Kinsmen, in which all the noble characters are apparently bisexual and a fully heterosexual character like the Jailer’s Daughter goes mad, applies this critique of conventions to all of society. Anyone who thinks that that Shakespeare steadfastly supports the social traditions of his day, really needs to read his works more closely and particularly needs to see this production of Kinsmen.

Wallis has very well cast the title cousins. Michael Man as Arcite and Emilio Vieira as Palamon know how to speak Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s verse well and how to make the meaning of some of their knottier lines absolutely clear. Both lend their characters a seriousness of demeanour and purpose that well suits two men best known as noble and virtuous soldiers. This earnestness makes their confessions of love for each other sound not like exaggeration but simple truth-telling.

Both are excellent in conveying the kinsmen’s inner conflict between love for each other and a sense of duty that compels them to fight for their love of Emilia. Though Palamon and Arcite are so alike in so many ways, Wallis and the actors do differentiate between the two, an important tactic that makes the two feel like real people instead of symbols. Man makes Arcite the more intellectual and reflective of the two, speaking most often in measured tones. Vieira makes Palamon more emotional and impulsive, speaking most often in excited tones. This emphasis on intellect in one and emotion in the other also marks them as an ideal couple where each has traits that fill needs in the other.

Kate Martin plays Emilia as a cool, level-headed young woman who is shocked rather than flattered that men should come to blows over her. When she compares the pictures of the two knights, she does so in an analytical frame of mind, not tempted by either. The greatest emotion she feels for the two is a sadness that their friendship should have been broken for her sake. What I would have liked from Martin was some sign of anger at Theseus when he proclaims that Emilia shall wed whoever is the victor in the public duel between the kinsmen. Emilia had made very clear that she looks forward to a Iife without marriage and she ought to be outraged that her brother treats her as a prize in a contest.

Jeff Yung has a strong, resonant voice but he tends to bluster as Theseus and often does not emphasize crucial words in his speeches. Melanie Leon gives a winning performance as Hippolyta, a woman who regards women as the superior sex and looks on men and their posturing with wry amusement. Her Hippolyta is not cold, however, and when the three Theban queens petition Theseus for mercy, she is moved by their pleas and immediately takes up their cause.

The subplot in Kinsmen concerns the Jailer of the two cousins and his Daughter. After Theseus banishes Arcite, Palamon becomes so despondent that the Jailer’s Daughter takes pity on him and helps him to escape thinking he will wait for her in the forest. She had begun to fancy him while he was a prisoner and soon fell in love. His simple thanks to her for helping him she construes as a profession of love. When Palamon does not arrive, she becomes anxious, and when she learns that her father may be hanged for Palamon’s escape, she begins to hallucinate and finally goes mad.

The difficulty of the role is that it is partly a comic parallel to the kinsmen’s instantly falling in love with Emilia. However, the Jailer’s Daughter is simple and of the lower class, whereas the kinsmen are highly educated and noble. This contrast between her and the two men might be comic in another play, but as Shakespeare and Fletcher have written it, we tend to pity the Daughter rather than laugh at her.

When she goes mad, any thought of comedy ends. She tries to drown herself but is rescued by the Jailer’s assistant, known only as the Wooer. We have to wonder if Shakespeare is playing out one of the what-if scenarios we see in his later plays – what if Romeo and Juliet were not helpless teenagers in Verona but powerful world leaders in the ancient world like Antony and Cleopatra? In Kinsmen it seems very like Shakespeare is asking, “What if Ophelia went mad but was saved from drowning?” That is a happier outcome but it is nothing one would expect in a comic subplot.

Other directors have erred in trying to force the Jailer’s Daughter to be conventionally comic when it is not. Luckily, Wallis sees what is happening in the text and allows the subplot to be what it is. Julia Nish-Lapidus is wonderful as the Jailer’s Daughter. She plays the Daughter as a bit dim but not foolish. We pity her falling in love with Palamon which even she knows to be hopeless, just as we should pity the two kinsmen for falling in love with Emilia. When the Daughter is mad and joins a dance, Nish-Lapidus shows she struggles to understand what is happening, thus forestalling any laughter. Wallis and Nish-Lapidus manage the difficult task, unachieved as Stratford in 2002, of making this unfortunate character sympathetic rather than ridiculous, a course much more in keeping with the generally serious nature of the action.

Daniel Briere is a fine Jailer though he could do more to make the figure less bland. Steven Hao, plays both Pirithous and the Wooer. He is very funny as the Wooer who can’t understand why the woman he loves so much should turn her affection on such an impossible choice as Palamon. As Pirithous, however, he gives no sign, and neither does Jeff Yung as Theseus, that their mutual love in any way rivals Theseus love for Hippolyta.

In smaller roles Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Madeline Hodges and Breanne Tice are all very effective as the three Theban Queens who ask Theseus to retake Thebes so they can bury their dead husbands. They are all well-spoken and act almost as an individualized chorus. Dzialoszynski later distinguishes herself as the kindly Doctor who comes up with an idea of how to cure the Daughter of her madness – another what-if reference, this time to the Doctor observing lady Macbeth. Dzialoszynski is also the fight director and has choreographed a truly dangerous-looking sword fight between Palamon and Arcite that will have you pushing yourself back in your seat.

It is a great pity that the run of Kinsmen is so short because so many lovers of Shakespeare, and indeed general theatre-goers, would benefit from seeing it. This production proves that Shakespeare does not need elaborate sets and costumes to be effective. Everything an audience needs is in the words. This production also demonstrates the folly of those directors who feel they must first develop a concept and then force a play by Shakespeare into it. That approach far too often makes us see only the director’s concept but not Shakespeare’s play.

Here, Wallis the director has studied the text deeply and has communicated his insights to the cast. Despite varying abilities, all the cast know what they are saying and why, which, oddly enough, is seldom the case in major productions even at the Stratford Festival. One only comes away from this production wondering why The Two Noble Kinsmen is not staged as often as Shakespeare’s other romances. I see that Shakespeare Bash’d performs staged readings of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. This production makes me wish they would include fully staged productions of his contemporaries. Then audiences might finally see how excitingly rich and varied the period is in which Shakespeare lived.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Emilio Vieira, Kate Martin and Michael Man; Madelaine Hodges as Emilia’s Woman, Michael Man as Arcite, Emilio Vieira as Palamon and Kate Martin as Emilia; Emilio Vieira as Palamon and Michael Man as Arcite; Kate Martin as Emilia, Emilio Vieira as Palamon and Michael Man as Arcite. © 2024 Kyle Purcell.

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