The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Two Gents Productions, dir. by Arne Pohlmeier, 9 May 2012 at The Globe, London

With a thud the trapdoor on the Globe stage was flung open and a head appeared. Denton Chikura gazed in Miranda-esque wonder at the strange theatrical shore he had washed-up on. Its diverse and colourful population returned his gaze expectantly. The other half of the Two Gents, Tonderai Munyevu, appeared moments later to help manoeuvre a large, blue, well-travelled trunk up onto the stage.

The acknowledgment of the setup of this visiting production blown temporarily onto the Thames Bankside for two performances as part of Globe to Globe’s whirlwind festival was delightfully inclusive and it set the tone of the production as one of shared endeavour. Chikura and Munyevu unpacked bits of costume from the trunk and hung these on a rope tied between the pillars flanking the Globe’s central ‘discovery space’. There were two actors, some pieces of costume and a bare stage. Their storytelling and our imaginations would fashion this afternoon’s entertainment.

‘Two Gentlemen…’ Chikura began, ‘both alike in friendship..’. There was a smattering of laughter. This was probably the relief laughter that has been a feature of this polyglot festival, when the non-Shona (or Bengali, Polish, Juba Arabic etc.) speaking members of the audience are surprised to have their linguistic comprehension bridged by the odd crumb of English. But it was also surprise laughter because this was the wrong play. (Romeo and Juliet will be performed at the end of the week by Brazilian company Grupo Galpão.) This teasing error was also indicative. Two Gents Productions, directed by Arne Pohlmeier, have a playful and inclusive approach to Shakespearean performance that in no way belies their simultaneously serious and profound engagement with the plays.

Chikura and Munyevu as the Two Gents discussed Proteus’ love for Julia, and Munyevu took a patterned shawl and draped it around the neck of a lady standing in the yard. Audience members’ heads moved from the two friends on-stage back to ‘Julia’, the love interest, in the yard. Valentine was off to Milan. He listed names of great cities that those of us unfamiliar with Shona could nevertheless recognise: Harare, Buenos Aires, London, Paris. This was a play about being caught between the horizon-expanding education offered by travel and multiculturalism and the tensions of local identity and love — these issues may not be unfamiliar to Chikura and Munyevu themselves as Zimbabwean actors living in London and touring internationally — Proteus, on the other hand, has stayed behind to woo Julia in Verona.

The Two Gents production tells this story through just these two extraordinarily talented and, as they boast in the course of afternoon, ‘elastic’ performers who take on the roles of the gentlemen, Valentine and Proteus; their lovers, Silvia and Julia; their servants, Speed, Launce and Lucetta; a father, a landlady, the Duke of Milan, two rival lovers, some outlaws and a dog. A feature of this early play, which has been put down to ‘immature’ writing, means that much of the play is composed of dialogue requiring only two speakers on-stage. Other characters who are present during these scenes, but only intermittently speaking, were handily but not always explicitly, represented by the dangling scraps of costume.

There is much that is gloriously funny in the production, in what can sometimes seem a fairly arbitrary and loosely-held together play. Chikura announces we are “now in Milan” with a straightforward functionalism (elaborate set changes overdo these lightning displacements) that is also playful. Silvia and Eglamour, on the other hand, arrive at the forest to find Valentine by ‘taxi’ (the opened blue trunk). The production has the only genuinely amusing ‘dog’ scene that I’ve seen. Munyevu, himself, plays Launce’s dog ‘Crab’. His dumb/sweet panting, while Launce castigates him for being surly and unfeeling by comparison with his parents’ fond farewells, was both resigned and sardonic, and hilarious in its sheer ‘dogginess’.

The stripped-back practice and aesthetic of this production, the two-man company, the prop-lite, minimal costuming setup, has the hallmarks of South African township theatre and is very much at home on the Globe stage. The audience is always acknowledged and negotiated, sometimes playfully, sometimes tenderly, sometimes combatively. After a long, heated passage about the delivery of love letters, Munyevu turns to us and says “You don’t understand, do you?”. The audience laughs in sudden relief. Lots of us don’t understand. Munyevu appraises us, and then gestures, with some disdain, to the electronic boards at the sides of the stage that have been showing snippets of scene synopsis. “Those aren’t going to help you!”, he exclaims mockingly, and having acknowledged what a tough time the non-speaking Shona audience are having but how very keen they are to understand, Munyevu laughs wickedly and says, “and I shan’t either”. The Gents carry on in Shona.

The Globe ‘vibratorium’ continues to process and encompass thirty-seven countries’ performances, interpretations, languages, memories, jokes and audiences, and this production was a simultaneously jubilant and incisive opportunity to reflect on the possibilities of diversity and inclusivity.

Penelope Woods
Queen Mary University of London / The Globe