Two gentlemen
Credit: Geraint Lewis

The Two Gentlemen of Verona: a triumph in student theatre

Content warning: reference to depictions of violence and attempted sexual assault.

Known for directing such high-profile figures as David Tennant in Hamlet and Judi Dench in All’s Well that Ends Well, Sir Gregory Doran is the expert in all things Shakespeare. But in his position as the university’s Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre, he has turned his directing expertise to a new challenge: student theatre. 

The story, modernised

‘What happens when you fall in love with your best friend’s girlfriend?’

Broadly speaking, The Two Gentlemen of Verona follows two friends whose love lives become entangled, with volatile results. After Valentine parts with his best friend, Proteus, for the Duke’s court in Milan, he falls for the Duke’s daughter, Silvia, though she has been promised to the wealthy Sir Thurio. Proteus, meanwhile, is in love with Julia. But upon his arrival in Milan, Proteus is stunned by his first sighting of Silvia. Betrayal follows as, wrangling with his loyalties to both Valentine and Julia, Proteus decides to pursue Silvia anyway. Disguised as a boy, Julia journeys from Verona to Milan in search of Proteus, whose deception starts to unravel as she witnesses his advances towards Silvia.

The source material is not the easiest to work with; in fact, it is one of Shakespeare’s most rarely performed plays. Yet, Doran had a dual motivation for adapting the story. First, it marks the final play in the First Folio which he had yet to direct. Second – and more importantly – its themes and dynamics are relevant to the lives of the young people in the cast and audience. In its discussion of leaving home, making friends (and rivals), first heartbreak and awkward love triangles, The Two Gentlemen addresses many aspects of the university experience. 

In its discussion of leaving home, making friends (and rivals), first heartbreak and awkward love triangles, The Two Gentlemen addresses many aspects of the university experience.

Two decisions were crucial to the directing. First, Doran opted to set the play in our contemporary world. This entails an incorporation not only of modern fashion, card payments and even dating apps (yes, Hinge did feature), but also some delightful drag performances. As the Duke of Milan, Jake Robertson delivered an entertaining rendition of Mambo Italiano. The second choice was to have a live dog play Crab – what could go wrong? Well, as it turns out, very little. This starring role was taken up by the adorable cockapoo, Rocky, who was remarkably calm in front of audiences, having spent a morning a week being familiarised with the Playhouse environment. 

Standout acting

Among the best features of the production is the strong acting by students who have clearly taken the time to understand and feel the words spoken, even if they are in a Shakespearean dialect. 

The stage presence and diction of the two gentlemen themselves were outstanding. As Valentine, Will Shackleton’s smooth and confident performance featured some poignant lines about love and separation: ‘Except I be by Silvia in the night/ There is no music in the nightingale.’ 

While the other leads were generally seasoned performers, Rob Wolfreys made his theatrical debut as Proteus – and a very impressive one at that. Rather than simply a LAMDA-style* performance, he brought raw talent and authenticity to the stage, delivering the words as though they were his own rather than predetermined dialogue. An effective use of gesture also enabled him to capture the fidgeting awkwardness of the young man navigating relationships, guilt and the error(s) of his ways. 

Some standout supporting acting was equally provided by the likes of Jelani Munroe, who brought comedy, enthusiasm and energy as Speed. Indeed, all of the cast and crew should be commended for their commitment to producing a high-level performance, especially alongside exams (with some taking finals in the same week as the shows!).

Tone 

The final moment of the play leaves us with a darker, uncertain tone, as Doran brings a significant gap in the original text to the forefront.

Though the play’s tone was overwhelmingly comedic, full to the brim with humourous, ironic exchanges and dog antics, the physicality of the staging in the few incidences of violence – including one deeply unsettling moment of attempted sexual assault – was made all the more jarring and realistic for this. 

The final moment of the play leaves us with a darker, uncertain tone, as Doran brings a significant gap in the original text to the forefront. While Valentine forgives Proteus for his betrayal, and the Duke grants Valentine his blessing to wed Silvia, the happy ending is not all it seems. If the men close ranks, Silvia (Rosie Mahendra) and Julia (Lilia Kanu) go unaccounted for, without a word. Is Julia simply expected to forgive Proteus for his betrayal? What about the serious attempt at sexual assault carried out by Proteus on Silvia? Why has Valentine simply forgiven Proteus for this behaviour? 

These questions are channelled into a last scene which is powerful indeed. As the other characters leave the stage, rejoicing and reconciling, only Silvia and Julia remain. They stand facing each other, as if saying they see each other, and asking us to see them. If the title, the Two Gentlemen of Verona, flashes up at the top of the stage, it is the two women of Verona with whose image we leave the show.

Final thoughts 

Overall, this is by far the best student production I’ve seen in my time at Oxford – and definitely worth the £12 that a student ticket costs. If the thunderous applause and cheering at the finale is anything to go by, it would seem the crowd agreed.


*LAMDA is an abbreviation for the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, an institution that trains individuals for drama exams, typically with a focus on vocal and expressive skills.