I had the pleasure of watching Don Taylor’s 1983 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (part of the BBC’s Television Shakespeare series). This is one of Shakespeare’s first plays, and although it is not among his best, I find it entertaining. This BBC version remains close to the text and is easy-to-watch.
It is a straightforward Renaissance setting with lovely vistas and blue skies. Much of the courting in this courtly-love quadrangle takes place in a garden graced by statues of Amor (love) and Fides (Latin for trustworthiness). Early on, golden cherubs shoot an arrow into the sign for amor, cluing us into Proteus’s preference for following his heart at the expense of his integrity.
The play’s action is not particularly well-drawn, but Shakespeare returns in later plays to many themes raised here, so maybe it can be viewed as Shakespeare’s internship project. Proteus is a silly boy acting on infatuation, willing to give up his true love with Julia and his lifelong friendship with Valentine, hurting everyone along the way, in his efforts to win over the disdainful Silvia. Shakespeare ties up all the loose ends at the end of this play by creating a sudden and unexpected return to reality for Proteus, while everyone he has injured instantly forgives him, and all live happily ever after. It’s a bit far-fetched.
This production is fun to watch. Proteus and Valentine are both wide-eyed boys, falling in love at first sight with pretty girls and sharing trysts and secret kisses with them where ever they can. Silvia is portrayed as the other-worldly woman on a pedestal — as she walks (lightly, in flowing gowns), flower petals are strewn on her from above. She’s the object of everyone’s infatuation.
Poor Julia, who dresses as the boy Sebastian in order to visit her wayward love Proteus in Milan, is lovely and heartbroken when she sees Proteus throwing himself at Silvia.
The comic foils in this play, Speed and Launce (along with his dog, Crab), are great fun with their quick-witted wordplay, often mocking the courtly lovers. I especially enjoy Speed, Valentine’s quick-talking and always-smiling servant, who is played here by a teenager.
Along with the set and costumes, the music in this version is lovely. From the chorus at the beginning to quiet lutes in the courtly garden, the Renaissance-inspired music is a nice addition.
The other thing I really enjoy here are the actors’ facial expressions. Valentine’s wide-eyed adoration of Silvia, Speed’s mischievous smiles, Julia’s heartbroken sadness as she listens to Proteus serenade Silvia… the actors do a great job. I think my favorite of all is the Duke of Milan (played by Paul Daneman) whose steely glare and raised eyebrow show that he knows exactly what kind of “friend” Proteus is for telling him of young Valentine’s secret plan to elope with his daughter Silvia. That is a great moment.
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