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The Two Noble Kinsmen review at the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company – ‘energetic and imaginative’

The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company. Photo: Donald Cooper The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company. Photo: Donald Cooper
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Blanche McIntyre’s exuberant production of this intriguing play, William Shakespeare’s late collaboration with John Fletcher, marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Swan Theatre: The Two Noble Kinsmen was presented as part of that first season in 1986.

Based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, the plot concerns two cousins, Palamon and Arcite, devoted friends until they both fall obsessively in love with a beautiful woman they catch sight of through their prison bars. Sister of Hippolyta, who is about to marry victorious Theseus, Emilia remains an idealised object; the real relationship is between the men. Shakespeare and Fletcher have added a subplot in which their jailer’s daughter goes mad for love of the oblivious Palamon.

McIntyre embraces the odd mixture of comedy, tragedy and satire on chivalry, and, by amplifying hints in the text, makes something distinctly up-to-date. Almost everyone is experimenting with gender and identity, blending tenderness, friendship, love and sexuality, although the overwhelming sense is of self-absorption. Anna Fleischle’s “dressing up” costumes express this perfectly: glamorous court and medieval garments – some bordering on circus excess – mix with jeans and suits. Only the family of the jailer’s daughter, where genuine unselfish love prevails, remain in conventional modern dress.

This is an admirably busy ensemble production, but Jamie Wilkes as Arcite and James Corrigan as Palamon bring the requisite mixture of comedy and macho tunnel-vision to their roles, Frances McNamee finds depth in beautiful, troubled Emilia and Danusia Samal is touching as the jailer’s daughter. Gyuri Sarossy, in tune with the overall mood, makes Theseus a childish playboy at least as much in love with his companion Pirithous as Hippolyta.

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Energetic, imaginative revival of a rarely played late Shakespeare, focusing on fluidity of gender and identity