'The Two Noble Kinsmen' by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare
Presented by SHAKESPEARE BASH'd and now onstage at Theatre Centre
Credit: Kyle Purcell Pictured l-r: Emilio Vieira and Michael Man
"By fleshing out the sexual repression of the original characters in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’, SHAKESPEARE BASH’d makes a case for why this seldom-performed dramedy deserves a place in the popular Shakespeare canon."
Unlike other Shakespeare productions that are begging for modernization, the plot of ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ already feels straight out of an HBO young adult series.
In short: Two sexually repressed bisexual men fight over a lesbian.
To expand: In Athens, three widowed queens interrupt the wedding of Hippolyta and Duke Theseus to ask him to go to war against King Creon of Thebes for denying their husbands proper burials. Despite being against his cruel tyranny, the ‘two noble kinsmen,’ cousins Arcite and Palamon, fulfill their duty to protect the city of Thebes and fight on Creon’s side. However, after Theseus wins, the cousins are imprisoned.
While imprisoned, the cousins catch sight of Hippolyta’s sister, Emilia, and immediately fall in love with her – inciting the rivalry that tears their relationship apart. Eventually, Arcite is released while Palamon escapes with help from the Jailer’s daughter who is in love with him. When the cousins meet again, they agree to fight to the death, with the winner marrying Emilia. Theseus catches them but ultimately revokes his death sentence. Instead, there is a tournament to decide which cousin marries Emilia and which gets executed.
While there continues to be a series of complicated events in the second half of the play, in the end, one of them dies, and one of them marries Emilia.
Mind you, at no point does Emilia express interest in either of them. And yet, she feels that it is her duty to marry one, just as Arcite and Palamon think it’s their duty to either marry Emilia or die.
While the original text may have focused more on the ‘chivalric code’ of its source material (Chaucer’s ‘The Knight’s Tale’), this production really leans into its criticism of compulsory heterosexuality and toxic masculinity.
Michael Man and Emilio Vieira’s portrayals of Arcite and Palamon, respectively, are as hilarious as they are heart-wrenching. Director James Wallis further showcases the different ways the two characters repress their feelings for each other through their physicality. Palamon is more prone to violence, moving in large gestures and speaking boldly, while Arcite is much more subdued. Arcite rarely initiates touch, but always leans into it when he can – whether that be when Palamon embraces him or when the two are dueling to the death.
In these moments, we see how their chivalric sense of duty forces them to be violent or avoid intimacy when they very clearly want the opposite. At one point, we watch Arcite reach out to put his hand on Palamon’s shoulder but then decides against it at the last minute.
These missed opportunities to be earnest remind us that we’re watching a Shakespearean tragedy, and these characters have no hope of happiness.
As she explicitly states, the funniest and most tragic part about these two cousins fighting over Emilia (Kate Martin) is her absolute lack of interest in all men. She shows a clear indifference to both cousins throughout the play, and in the end, her marriage to Palamon is just as tragic as Arcite’s death.
Throughout the play, the entire cast has great energy that never falters during the almost 3-hour running time. ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ is performed on a thrust stage, which Wallis uses effectively, especially during the dances (Breanne Tice) and fight choreography (Jennifer Dzialoszynski). The show opens with a great movement sequence that serves as an overture, full of images alluding to moments the audience sees later.
However, since the rest of the staging was more straightforward, I was left craving more movement.
I also enjoyed the productions, metatheatricality with the actors entering as themselves and putting on costume pieces to become their characters. ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ in itself portrays an unclear time period, historically taking place in Ancient Greece, with all the action and characters presenting medieval times. Therefore, rather than leaning into either, the costume design captures the inherent anachronism and metatheatricality through its mix of modern clothing and Elizabethan elements.
I will admit that some costumes were much better than others. I particularly enjoyed the Jailer, the Jailer’s Daughter, and Pirithous because the elements mixed well together. On the other hand, I found myself distracted by anybody wearing a jogger or a long belt. I also think actor Kate Martin was not set up for success with that skirt so long she’d step on it anytime she had to change levels.
Overall, I really enjoyed SHAKESPEARE BASH’s production of ‘Two Noble Kinsmen’ and felt that its portrayal of masculinity and sexuality makes the original text extremely relevant to a modern audience.
The production runs until February 4 at the Theatre Centre Incubator (1115 Queen Street West). For tickets: https://theatrecentre.org/tickets/?eid=110137 or call 416-538-0988.
‘THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN’ by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare
Presented by SHAKESPEARE BASH’d
Directed by James Wallis
Stage Manager: Milena Fera
Sound Designer: Matt Nish-Lapidus
Fight Director: Jennifer Dzialoszynski
Choreographer: Breanne Tice
Lighting: Sruthi Suresan
Jailer’s Daughter Songs: Hilary Adams
Performers: Daniel Briere, Joshua Browne, Tristan Claxton, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, 郝邦宇 Steven Hao, Madelaine Hodges (賀美倫), Melanie Leon, Michael Man, Kate Martin, Julia Nish-Lapidus, Breanne Tice, Le Truong, Emilio Vieira, Jeff Yung 容海峯