What a wonderful joyous funny warm experience was this!
The lights come up in one corner from a blackout to show a tightly clustered group of young performers singing - and instantly we know we are in the company of troubadour players about to make a show for us with just themselves, a few instruments and some motley scraps of cloth they will use for costumes and the many letters that feature through Shakespeare's story. This is his first play and - as with Chekhov's Ivanov - it's great to be able to see so many of the characters and ideas he will recreate again in his later plays: Julia who dresses as man - brilliantly achieved and utterly convincing as a disguise with a stretch of cloth over one eye so attention is grabbed by the disability rather than a sense of recognition - and heads off from Verona to Milan to teach her man how to love (As You Like It); there are balcony scenes (Romeo & Juliet), Julia lists her suitors for her maid to strip of their vanities with gleeful cruelty (The Merchant of Venice), and her initial dismissal of Proteus reminds of Kate and Beatrice; there's a there is even a Friar Laurence.
It is somehow an easy step to accept these young performers as the young lovers – they convey a freshness and vitality that exactly suits Shakespeare’s characters. And something i have never before seen so effectively achieved is the way all the performers step instantly in and away from their characters, so that even those playing leads manage to completely lose every hint of their characters to meld seamlessly into the ensemble. So I found I was even searching for actors who seemed to have disappeared in the chorus scenes, and conversely people I had barely noticed before would suddenly emerge as apparently unmissable large and dynamic presences when they stepped into an individual role.
The staging uses a variety of disciplined simplicity: performers bond together to make human architecture and furniture - seats, walls, doors, headless busts, a balcony, and a dangerous forest is conjured with lighting, a smoke machine and another length of cloth. We get a mimed slow motion duel or contest in the early scenes while Valentine & Proteus are all devoted and true friendship forever more that physically lays out everything the story of these two young Veronese gentlemen will unfold. And we get live music - instrumental and singing - to both move the story on, take us too new places (memorably from Verona to Milan), and to underscore or change the mood.
From start to finish this show vibrates with spirit and exuberance so you feel swept along and caught inside the performers’ zest and drive to bring their story, and yet for all their youthful energy there is nothing amateurish or unfinished and the moments of poignancy and realisation arrive with a crystalline focus that is deeply moving and utterly true. And then just as seamlessly the moment is gone, moved on and we are delighted and laughing again or surfing the story or beaming off the radiant music and movement.
And one more jewel I have to record for permanent remembrance: the performance of the dog is everything this show has encapsulated: truth, humour, discipline, spirit, delight, poignancy, immense fun and quiet understated sadness. Brilliant!
It ends with a final bright song, through which the players take their smiling bows, and then they again converge into their tight and tightly lit ensemble spot - all individuality again extinguished. Blackout and they are gone.
And i'm still glowing from the experience they made for us.