A staged reading
by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare
Directed by Joshua Engel and Liana Olear
Dramaturgy by Tiffany M. Waters
Adapted for Zoom and performed by KT Aylesworth, Leah Delano, Wes Dennis, Shirley Long, Jeff Poretsky, Melissa Schick, and Kathryn Wanschura, with Tyler Haggard
April 30 and May 1, 8 PM
All performances are free and open to the public
The Two Noble Kinsmen was a collaborative effort by two great Elizabethan playwrights, and now a collaborative experiment by the Rude Mechanicals. In studying this rarely-performed play we’ve found themes of consent, same-sex relationships, and patriarchy. Starting with the raw text from the Quarto edition, we’ve focused the themes, tightened the timing, and brought out the beauty of the language.
For two nights we’ll present our finished script, live on YouTube.
You can view the results of our work by looking at our marked up script, as well as the final version below.
Palamon and Arcite go to war against Theseus, who is invading their home. They are captured, and while imprisoned, see Theseus’ beautiful sister Emilia. They fall in love with her and begin to fight, but Arcite is released and banished. Instead of leaving, he disguises himself, and impresses Theseus by winning a competition. Theseus makes him bodyguard to Emilia.
The Jailor’s Daughter helps Palamon escape, but he refuses her, and she runs mad. Palamon encouters Arcite, and they begin to fight over Emilia. Theseus interrupts them, and resolves the fight by promising Emilia to the winner of a battle to the death. Emilia, who would prefer to remain a vestal virgin, accepts so that one can survive.
A doctor diagnoses the Jailor’s Daughter with lovesickness, and proposes a cure: the Wooer pretends to be Palamon. This works, and the Daughter and Wooer seem to live happily ever after.
Arcite prays to Mars to win the battle. Palamon prays to Venus to get love. Emilia prays to Diana that she will get whoever loves her best. Each gets their wish: Arcite wins, but before he can be married, is thrown from his horse and dies. Palamon and Emilia will marry.
Joshua Engel writes:
This project grew from the same place as the Rude Mechanicals: my fascination with the gap between the page and the stage. My first introduction to Shakespeare was to read the full text, and was lost and bewildered. Years later I became enraptured by Shakespeare on film and stage, and realized the way a director could sharpen the focus to make Shakespeare come alive for an audience.
This, to me, is the most important mission of the Rude Mechanicals, and I wanted to lead a class in my approach to Shakespeare editing. I had never read or seen The Two Noble Kinsmen, presenting an opportunity to encounter a play with no preconceptions, just as I had in school.
A first reading was a challenge, even with the invaluable assistance of our dramaturg, Tiffany M. Waters, who genuinely enjoys this play and even produced a line-by-line gloss of the play into modern language. Not only is the raw text full of unfamiliar language (even to Rudes to whom Elizabethan English is almost daily speech), but the story itself is often hidden among dense, elliptical sentences and convoluted imagery. It took two days just to read and figure out what the story was.
After that we chose what elements of the text were most important to us. An entire sub-plot about a dance — which wouldn’t work well over Zoom and contained nothing of value to the story — had to go. We even cut the entire first scene, a sub-plot that explains why Palamon and Arcite go to war in the first place. Then we got to go through the entire play, line by line. Does it advance the plot? Is it clear? Is it engaging? Is it redundant? Does it tell something that could better be shown? Through class after class we whittled 3,300 lines down to just over 1,000.
About The Two Noble Kinsmen
The most interesting thing I found in this play is not its title characters, who follow a fairly predictable trope about bro culture, but the object of their affections. Many of the play’s relationships are homoerotic: the relationship between Palamon and Arcite, between Theseus and Pirithous, and Emilia with the offstage Flavina. The playwrights constantly remind us of Emilia’s preference for women over men, and yet she has to accept her position to be forcibly married off to one of the two men, solely for some sort of martial virtue they possess.
Emilia’s ending is not a happy one. If a tragedy is a play that ends with a funeral, and a comedy one that ends with a wedding, what can we make of a play that ends with a wedding and a funeral simultaneously?
It’s set against a second plot about the Daughter, whose language is very reminiscent of Ophelia’s, but unlike the poor Dane the Daughter survives the play. She’s married by deception, but unlike Emilia’s plot, she ends the play genuinely happy. Reading the play for the first time, her final scene was the first one that made me genuinely smile — until I thought again and realized that she’s been tricked into it. It’s reminiscent of the dubious ending of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where we’re supposed to be happy that Helena has her Demetrius, even though he’s only in love with her because he remains under the influence of Oberon’s magic drug.
That’s not the only connection to Shakespeare’s other plays. The story bears a lot of resemblance to the similarly-titled Two Gentlemen of Verona. What else would two young men do, other than swear their love to each other before fighting over a woman? That play, somehow, ends even more disturbingly than this one: with a sexual assault, and a forgiveness that excludes the woman’s agency even more utterly.
That brings the whole process full circle for me. Even in a staged reading rather than a full production, I believe that the audience can enjoy and be intrigued by this Shakespeare play few of them will have encountered before. Not only have we demonstrated what it takes to take a play from ink on a page to a vibrant, engaging performance, but how rewarding it is to see the connections to the rest of Shakespeare’s body of work.
There remains but one Shakespeare play that the Rude Mechanicals have never performed, Cymbeline, originally scheduled for 2020. Shakespeare wrote only about half of The Two Noble Kinsmen, and while the remain various increasingly dubious attributions of text to Shakespeare, I’m grateful that we’ve gotten to study the way this play connects to his broader body of work. Soon, I hope, the Rude Mechanicals can return to the stage and “spike the canon” with our Cymbeline, and have The Two Noble Kinsmen under our belts as well.
|Jailor||Leah Delano (U/S Erin Nealer)|
|Jailor’s Daughter||Tiffany M. Waters|
|Doctor/Countryman 2||Tyler Haggard|
|Countryman 1||Joshua Engel|
|Directors||Joshua Engel & Liana Olear|
|Zoominatographer||Jeff Poretsky & Liana Olear|
|Dramaturg||Tiffany M. Waters|