Michael Bogdanov's production transfers from the Swan at Stratford with his most frustrating hallmark intact: a keen and often audacious grasp of the big picture coupled with a tendency to let individual details slip sloppily by and undermine his overall end.
Two hundred years ago, Carlo Goldoni's The Venetian Twins was the first commedia dell'Arte play successfully to be staged with the actors neither wearing masks nor improvising freely around a basic scenario, but following a set script. For the most part Bogdanov goes full tilt for the commedia flavour, modulated for modern sensibilities after the example of Dario Fo. Actors don't just soliloquise at, but banter and interact with the audience – culminating in a sequence in which a supposedly hapless punter in the front row is accidentally stabbed during a duel, cueing a stage invasion by police, ambulancemen and even a couple of curious actors from the show in The Pit. Audience contact is aided by Bogdanov and designer Kendra Ullyart's solution to retaining the intimacy of the smaller Swan space: they simply sit a couple of dozen of the audience on the Barbican stage, even at pavement tables of a Veronese bar.
David Troughton is both the linchpin of these divers frolics and the primary source of the energy which sustains the play's central premise through the performance; he plays the twins Zanetto and Tonino, sundered years back and both coincidentally arriving in Verona to wed their respective beloveds. The ensuing confusion, both romantic and financial (as one twin walks off with the other's riches and so forth) is straight out of Plautus via The Comedy Of Errors. But Troughton, as both the Venetian roué and the Bergamot bumpkin, puts his back into the quick-changes, slapstick and topical asides – perhaps too much so: on the press night, one caught a distinct whiff of the rehearsed fluff, with Troughton deliberately tripping over lines for the sake of another giggle.
Such excess is forgivable, because he carries the show virtually single-handed. This is where Bogdanov's big idea begins to come unstuck: actors simply do not accommodate each other's rhythms and energy levels in the way that would elevate the production from simply nodding acknowledgement at commedia to actually doing it. The women, in particular (Sarah Woodward and Jenny Quayle as the wives-to-be and Siân Radinger as a supposedly feisty maidservant), make no attempt to grab a slice of the action for themselves, but are content to be pulled along by the action: lazy acting at the best of times, and verging on the disastrous in such a play as this. Only James Hayes, as a deadpan Irish manservant, carves a niche of his own to rival Troughton's towering exuberance.
Modish contemporary sensibilities also cock up the ending. We all know that the death of one of the twins is merely a device to prevent the lead actor from having to bilocate himself during the dénouement; yet, if the resolution contains elements of potential shadow, current taste dictates that the darkness control be turned up to 12 if at all possible. Bogdanov, alas, does not shirk this impulse; consequently, as the artificial gloom gathers at the close the audience is left vainly trying to feel guilty about its earlier guffaws, before growing just plain bewildered at an allegedly grotesque, but in fact simply gratuitous and incompetent, masked epilogue.
David Troughton's effervescent twin performances are indubitably worth a look; it would have been nice if more of the production had backed him up.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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