Two Noble Kinsmen
The RSC’s 1986 production of Two Noble Kinsmen made a big impression on me and I can still visualise much of it. It wasn’t just the brilliant playing of Hugh Quarshie and Gerard Murphy that impressed; it was also the oddity of the play itself with the interpolations of the story of the Jailer and his daughter and the tangential material about the Schoolmaster and countrymen.
Faced with this odd text with its many soliloquies, one after another towards the end, director Blanche McIntyre does something even more interesting, not all of which I grasped. The overriding theme of her production is that real love lies in same sex relationships which don’t necessarily have to be sexual. Even Hippolyta, about to be married to Theseus, acknowledges this and McIntyre follows the theme throughout.
Emilia’s insistence that she has no interest in marrying is followed through by the attentions of the character known in the 1977 New Penguin edition as ‘Woman, servant of Emilia’. This character is oddly omitted from the Cast list in the programme. She has very few lines but, splendidly played by Eloise Secker, is an almost constant presence. Emelia is clearly attracted to her and she to Emelia. The on the lips kiss between Theseus and Pirithous at the beginning in front of Theseus’s fiancée drew ooh and ahs from the audience but was crucial in establishing the production’s primary idea. The most important same sex relationship is between the cousins Palamon and Arcite, wonderfully played by James Corrigan and Jamie Wilkes. They are made for each other, mimick each other’s speech and gestures and are perfectly matched physically. It is an unmarriage made in heaven.
Beside these relationships the others pale. Hippolita is Theseus’s war trophy. Both Palamon and Arcite ‘fall in love’ with an image, Emilia, and remain faithful to their adolescent fantasy until the very end when, on Arcite’s death, they realise that it is only their love for each other which matters. The Jailer’s daughter also falls in love with an image, Palamon, ignoring her faithful wooer.
In political terms McIntyre makes clear that power lies with women: the three queens dominate Theseus into submitting to a war against Creon; Hippolyta with her strong Scottish voice dominates Theseus and the Jailer’s daughter ends up controlling several men through her madness.
So far, so good, much of it brilliantly good.
Then the Schoolmaster and the Countrymen. They aren’t, at least according to the programme. They are the gods, one of whom looks like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. It is a Schoolmistress of course (to fit in with the theme) but the relationship between the Morris dancers and the gods eluded me and still does. Surely the play says that we make our own foolish decisions, based on impulse and ridiculous notions of romantic ‘love’, not that we are controlled by the gods who kill us for their sport. I think this is very much a post-King Lear play. The jailer’s daughter replaces her red cardigan for a dirty white one when she goes mad but takes the curtain call with her red one back on. This to me suggested that she recovered from her madness and did end up marrying her wooer, rather than thinking that the Jailer’s account of her marriage was simply to prevent Palamon from seeing her at the end.
The end of the play, after all the soliloquies, the combat and Arcite’s death (the only moment in the production which descended to actorly deathbed spluttering) is powerful and affecting. The characters are all on stage. Having learned that he is to marry Emilia, Palamon merely walks off upstage and exits. Pause. Then Emilia leaves. Pause. Then her Woman leaves. Then Theseus tamely utters his concluding platitudes. Theme continued right to the end.
I had another thought, too, but I won’t labour it. Was there some Brexit material lurking round the edges? Was the Jailer’s daughter’s red, white and blue costume telling us something? Was Hippolyta’s Scottish accent a reminder that the conquered are now in the ascendancy? Was there a tiny hint of the return of grammar schools?
There is so much more to say about this splendid production. You had better come and see it for yourself. If you treat yourself to a night at Moss Cottage you can have homemade jams and marmalade on homemade bread to follow your full English breakfast or smoked salmon and scrambled egg.