Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Two Gents: Many Parts

Two Gentlemen of Verona (Vakomana Vaviri ve Zimbabwe)
Street Theatre, 19, 21, 23 March 2013

Shakespeare’s comedies can be very confusing for a modern audience, with mistaken identity, cross dressing, clownish characters, exalted romance, and outdated themes of filial loyalty and banishment. This South African township theatre version, featuring only two actors, Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyebvu, has the potential to be even more baffling, yet their adaptation (along with Arne Pohlmeier, who also directed) is simply sublime. To paraphrase from another Shakespearean play, they have into a thousand parts divided two men.

In the beginning, Munyebvu (arguably the more cerebral of the pair) appears through the emergency exit door carrying a suitcase. Is he part of the play? Is he meant to be here? He is shortly joined by Munyebvu (a master of physical comedy), and the wondrous aspect is set. Immediately the audience is directly involved in the production as the actors include them – literally in the case of fleshing out the outlaws in one scene where audience members are ushered on stage and then moved and manipulated by Chikura and Munyebvu as they speak from behind them, putting words into their mouths.

The actors embody all of the characters of the play, changing between them with just a twist of a shawl, a flourish of a cloak, or a flick of a glove. These costume items emerge from the suitcase, which also features as the only prop and doubles as, among other things, a bath a boat, and a table. The diligent duo play everyone from Julia disguised as a page boy to follow her lover, Proteus, to Crab the dog with rolling eyes and panting tongue. A man playing a woman playing a man seems authentically Shakespearean, while a man playing an anthropomorphosised dog takes the drama to another level entirely.

Just as there is no divide between the actors and the audience, there is no class barrier between the masters (Proteus and Valentine) and the servants (Launce and Speed). The actors respect the language – Proteus and Valentine speak in blank verse – but they are not above making asides to the audience to ensure that they understand and are participating. When Chikura complains that Munyebvu has spat on him, Munyebvu explains, “It’s all these plosives you can see – when you get plosives, you can do it too.” When Munyebvu appears to be distracted, Chikura complains, “He always makes this noise during my monologue”.

As Valentine writing a letter to Sylvia’s lover, Thurio, Chikura exhorts the audience, “keep up; there’s only two of us.” Letters play a major role in the plot and are read out on palms and traded with high fives. Similarly rings are exchanged with a clicking of fingers. The pared-back performance is pieced out by delicious African rhythms played upon the suitcase, and an instrument that may be a balafon, while the harmonious voices of the actors swell the scene.

It’s not all a laugh a minute, however, as the play touches upon some dark and serious themes. When Valentine first sets out for Milan from Verona, he wants his friend Proteus to accompany him, but Proteus wishes to remain behind with his love, Julia. Proteus’ father orders him to follow Valentine, which he does, after many fond farewells to his Julia. In Milan, Valentine falls in love with Sylvia, the Duke’s daughter, but when Proteus spies Sylvia, he forgets his promised love for Julia and vows to win Sylvia for himself. The bonds of love and friendship are sorely tested. In an interview Munyevbu reveals that when he plays Proteus betraying Valentine, he has had audience members interjecting to tell him he is a ‘bad man’.

The most problematic and ugly aspect of the play is the ending in which Proteus, learning that Sylvia is not in love with him pursues her into the woods and threatens, “I’ll force thee to yield to my desire.” Valentine encounters this scene and is disgusted with Proteus but forgives him after Proteus demonstrates what he considers to be true repentance, while Julia, still disguised as a boy has also witnessed the attempted rape. This tragic scene becomes desperately serious as the character of Sylvia becomes a discarded glove.

It is tricky to reinstate the comic closure where the original couples are reunited and the production does not gloss over the dichotomy. The final scene is left to Sylvia and Julia to share an overwhelmingly tender and emotional moment without words but where looks convey action and thought in the most profound interpretation. Many plot devices are sacrificed to the development of character and comedy but the truth of the sentiments – love, friendship, constancy, repentance, forgiveness, and devotion (including the master and his dog) – are all emphasised.

For a Zimbabwean company living in Britain in exile from the Mugabe regime, the themes of displacement and enforced travel are powerful. The company are between boundaries and cultures with their individual experience of Diaspora. For four years they have travelled globally, including performing this play in the African language of Shona as part of the Globe to Globe festival.

The vibrant production of Shakespeare’s earliest and possibly least performed play is a triumph. The hour and a half flies by in the capable hands, mouths and bodies of one of the most engaging double acts I have ever seen.

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