The Two Noble Kinsmen
Updated: May 23, 2020
I was excited about the prospect of seeing this play. The 38th Shakespeare. The extra one. The play that everyone can agree wasn’t written all by Shakespeare but is occasionally tacked on to his collected works, if not quite thoroughly stitched in. The excitement was even greater in this time of Culture deficit, and I was grateful to the Globe Theatre for their generous offering. Having streamed the play, I still am, but I feel a bit mugged off, for want of a Jacobean term.
Illustration by Clare Melinsky
I had grounds for high hopes. Pericles, the 37th Shakespeare if you consider it was not included in his first folio, is wonderful. This was another partnership project, with George Wilkins sharing a quill. Again my first experience of this play came via the Globe, but Pericles was on another dramatic planet compared to The Two Noble Kinsmen. The RSC also performed Pericles in 2016, temporarily interrupting their first folio cycle, to wide acclaim. So how could the 38th play be so bad? Such ignoble drama?
For me, Two Noble Kinsmen is a pale imitation. The best I can say is that it’s a bit like Shakespeare. Or rather, a mix and match pastiche combining bits and bobs from several proper Shakespeare plays. The play contains familiar themes that are not undeserving of our consideration, characters who don’t seem totally inadequate, relationships that are not altogether unlikely, actions that are not completely implausible, and scenes that really aren’t all that out of place. But, putting all these together, with very little else of merit, the play seems a bit pointless and disoriented.
Searching for the freedom to impersonate Shakespeare (?)
Let’s see where the bits and pieces come from. First, the title. A bit like The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Okay, it’s just a title, and the world ‘King’ appears in lots of Shakespeare’s plays, so repetition is allowed, if not hesitation and deviation. But a bit more effort could have been made here.
Next, the play is set in the ancient world, in Thebes, Greece. Okay again. A war has just taken place, though there’s no action on stage to suggest hostility between neighbouring nations, and there isn’t any heroic deed. No wrath and vengeance. No great historical significance. Not even a myth to entertain us. This is a far cry from Troilus and Cressida, let alone Antony and Cleopatra, or some other ancient classic. It’s all a bit underwhelming.
Now let’s probe the main characters. There’s a Duke. Great. There are lots of Dukes in Shakespeare. Think of Prospero in The Tempest, Vincentio in Measure for Measure, Gloucester in King Lear, all those dukes in so many history plays. But Theseus doesn’t have any gravitas, doesn’t seem to know what to do. He makes decisions that he doesn’t ensure are carried out and changes his mind at the slightest persuasion. This Duke is so unconvincing. Perhaps Shakespeare thought this might be fun. Or perhaps Fletcher tricked him into it.
Theseus banishes Arcite for being in the wrong land at the wrong time. But Arcite doesn’t go. He is in love and doesn’t want to go home. Compare him with Bolingbroke, who is sent away by Richard II, only to come back and overthrow the king. No, Arcite wanders around for a bit, turns up in disguise as a wrestler and gets appointed to serve the Duke’s sister, who is apparently in need of a man-servant and whom Arcite previously fell in lust with from his prison window. A hint of Twelfth Night there? Perhaps.
All of a sudden the best of enemies: Arcite (Brian Dick) and Palamon (Paul Stocker) at the Globe Theatre, 2018 (photo: Nobby Clark)
Born for higher things: Emelia (Ellora Torchia) at the Globe Theatre, 2018 (photo: Nobby Clark)
Where The Two Noble Kinsman comes close to Richard II is in the duelling. The two protagonists and rivals for Emelia’s hand try to battle it out twice, but each time they don’t get very far in their playground scraps. A bit like Bolingbroke and Mowbray, who are broken up by King Richard. But it’s not really that similar. And not at all like the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, where there is plenty of death for those seeking a courtly bloodbath. Palamon dies late on, but only because his horse falls on top of him. I’m starting to think that Shakespeare was indeed just having a laugh with his ignoble kinsmen.
Since we’re on Hamlet, let’s throw in the jailor’s daughter, who goes mad due to unrequited love. A bit like Ophelia losing her mind when she is rejected by her sweet prince. But in The Two Noble Kinsmen, nobody ends up drowned in a pond. This is Shakespeare lite. Not even a tragi-comedy. Neither one nor the other, and barely an acceptable combination. If you want full-on comedy look out for Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Comedy of Errors, or even, and I never thought I’d say this, Love’s Labour’s Lost. Maybe not that last one.
The key to the drama, but Shakespeare was never inside: The Jailor's Daughter (Imogen Stubbs), 1987 (photo: Donald Cooper)
Let’s talk of love. Where else might we see people who fall in love at first sight? Fair Romeo, certainly. Quick to drop his previous squeeze. He’s a bit of a lad. Miranda falls for Ferdinand in The Tempest. But she has never seen any young man before, so becoming instantly smitten makes sense on the island. And then there’s Titania, who falls in love with an ass the instant she awakes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the help of a drop of magic. But all of these, however unlikely they might seem, quickly become convincing. In contrast, Arcite and Palamon fall deeply in love with no real prompting, no justification. They are in prison, I suppose, so maybe I’m being bit too harsh here. They must crave female company, though probably not a goddess to bow down to and serve.
There are so many things in this play that are a bit like things that Shakespeare included in his genuinely Shakespearean plays. Even in some of his lesser but still good plays. But here, they appear as poor imitations of his craft.
I’d like to blame this all on Fletcher. But who was Fletcher? How much did he contribute? He surely could not have been the senior writer in this partnership. And if this was a late, late play by Shakespeare, or if the Bard even contributed 50% of the play, he really should have known how to write a consistent narrative by that point. Maybe by then Shakespeare had no more original ideas. Or no ideas that were worth re-jigging. So he picked out some of his classic moments, watered them down, jumbled them up, and ended up with a huge disappointment. A poor reflection of his own former glories.
Sharing the responsibility?
I can see why both The Globe and The RSC would want to stage The Two Noble Kinsmen. It’s a bit of a novelty, a bit mysterious, raises quite a few laughs. And many of us would love to discover a new Shakespeare play. A genuine one. But this one is all too much of a stretch. A massive stretch. And yet still, I am glad I have witnessed this play. Even if only to ascertain that it doesn’t belong, not in any of Shakespeare’s folios.
Last words time. Hey nonny nonny nonny. As sung by the jailor’s daughter. One last link with Hamlet and the fair Ophelia. Hey non nonny, nonny hey nonny. No, I’m just being silly again. I’ve dismissed The Two Noble Kinsmen once. Extensively. And I must stick to my original judgement. See how it works, Duke?
But, thanks, Globe Theatre, for screening this play for us to enjoy during this period of restricted entertainment. Superb camera work. Genuine HD resolution. With plenty of typical Globe production features. Music. Jumping around. Inclusivity in the cast. Great humour. A big night out, under an open sky, somehow unrestrained by our own ceilings. Everything that we might want and expect from a Globe performance. Except Shakespeare.
Looking sheepish, as well he might.
© Eddie Hewitt 2020