Greg Doran on staging Shakespeare’s unloved Two Gents with students

What is Shakespeare’s least liked play? The two gentlemen from Verona would be high on many people’s lists. It is clearly student work. It has had few notable revivals. And it also raises problematic issues, as the treacherous Proteus at one point threatens to rape Silvia, who is engaged to his best friend Valentine. For these and other reasons, it is no one’s favorite piece.

However, this may be about to change. Greg Doran – now officially Sir Gregory – stages a production at the Oxford Playhouse with student actors. After 35 years as an actor and then director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Doran is this year the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theater at St Catherine’s College. It is an enticing post – including Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller, Deborah Warner and Adjoa Andoh – that includes lectures and workshops. But Doran has had the bright idea to use his tenure to direct the one play in the First Folio that has thus far eluded him: The Two Gents. After watching him work, I suspect he may have solved some of the problems of one of Shakespeare’s early works.

“It is an ideal play,” says Doran, “to do with students. It’s about young people leaving their home, falling in love and discovering their identity. In fact, it brings back memories of my own experience of leaving Preston to study in Bristol just as Shakespeare’s characters were leaving Verona for Milan. But there was real collaboration on the piece. It’s been a funny few years since my husband died [Sir Antony Sher]. I’ve filled it with various relocation activities, such as traveling the world to study existing copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. What this production allows me to do is step back into the rehearsal room and pass on what I’ve learned to the next generation. They also teach me. There is a scene where Launce and Speed, two comical servants, discuss the qualities of a milkmaid. One of the actors said to me that it looked exactly like a hinge profile. I had no idea what he was talking about until he explained it was a dating app.”

But how do you put on a play if you are not familiar with the students’ work? “Well,” says Doran, “80 initially submitted videos. I’ve seen forty in real life and cast twenty of them. What is special is the range of experiences. Half the cast are students: the other half are pursuing DPhils or masters degrees in subjects such as neuroscience, art history and professional theater in the Soviet gulags. Three of the cast I discovered also do drag acts.”

Youth is the key with which Doran tries to unlock the piece. The central quartet – Valentine and Silvia, Proteus and Julia, who follows her faithless lover to Milan disguised as a boy – all come from students undergoing their own journey of discovery. Doran has also performed the piece in recognisably modern Milan, including a Grand Prix final and a bus station. Additionally, there are a few gender changes in that Proteus now has a mother instead of a father and the forest bandits of the final act are turned into female eco-warriors. When I watched Doran work with the students, what struck me most was the two-way nature of the process. He gives a lot of technical advice: they give their own view of the characters.

Doran introduced the rehearsals with a two-week “Shakespeare gym” to explore the rules of speaking verse. But as he works on the floor, he continually emphasizes the importance of line breaks: a mantra inherited from Peter Hall. I saw a scene where Proteus’ mother is being attended to by some nail technicians as she contemplates whether to send her son away from home. Much of Doran’s focus was on the mother’s PA and his strenuous advocacy for Milan: “There he will practice tilts and tournaments / Hear sweet conversations, talk to noblemen / And watch every practice / His youth and nobility of worthy of birth.” By urging the actor to emphasize the last word of each line and make the verse “land,” Doran showed how what could be a routine speech takes on unexpected weight: The irony, of course, is that once Proteus arrives in Milan, he betrays his friends. birth by acting like total shit.

Or is it? This is one of the big talking points of production. Once in Milan, Proteus falls in love with Silvia, betraying his best friend and his own devoted Julia. Doran stages with great precision the moment when Proteus is first introduced to Silvia: she greets him with a courteous smile, he stares at her as if struck by lightning. Doran lets the scene segue into Proteus’ self-justifying monologue and then asks the entire party a question: What are we to make of Proteus at this point?

The answers come from across the room. One student says Proteus is like many Oxford men who make love to one woman while keeping their girlfriend at home; another says you feel a little sorry for him. One view is that Valentine and Silvia are far from an ideal match in the first place, which somewhat validates Proteus: another is that “everyone has been in Proteus’ position, but you don’t therefore act of your own accord”. It is surprising how much sympathy there is for Proteus: his beloved Julia, who follows him to Milan, is even described as a stalker. But one of the smartest comments comes from Jake Robertson, the gulag expert who plays the Duke of Milan, who says that the only real love affair in the play is between Valentine and Proteus.

What emerges is that Doran wants us all to radically rethink the play: to banish the idea of ​​Proteus as a mustached villain, to glory in the verse and to see this early work as an intense study of pain of youth. Speaking to the actors playing the four main roles – Rob Wolfreys as Proteus, Will Shackleton as Valentine, Rosie Mahendra as Silvia and Lilia Kanu as Julia – I am also struck by their own collaboration in the creative process and how much student theater has changed. through the decades.

Related: Romeo, Macbeth, Hamlet and I: the ecstasy and pain of performing Shakespeare

The idea of ​​hiring professionals like Doran is not new in itself. In 1959 I was a disgusting Roman citizen in an Oxford University Drama Society (OUDS) production of Coriolanus, directed by Anthony Page, and subsequently made a career at the Royal Court, designed by Sean Kenny and starring Susan Engel as Volumnia. Theater in Oxford was then highly centralised, with OUDS and the Experimental Theater Club (ETC) determining the choice of plays and productions. Now power has been transferred, with students setting up their own production companies and choosing their own locations. The turnover is incredible: I was told there were 23 Oxford productions last term alone and at least 60 in the last year. I have no idea if this affects academic work, but I was stunned by the unaffected calm of Kanu, who is in her third year studying history and English at Balliol and who will take her final exams immediately after Two Gents completes its run.

It’s a whole new world for me and one that I suspect is being replicated on campuses across the UK. But this production will undergo two iron tests when it takes the stage at the Oxford Playhouse. One of these is the cast’s ability to project the lines and a professional voice coach has already been at work for this. The other key test is whether the actors can avoid being overshadowed by a live dog in the form of a cockapoo cast in the role of Crab. If they can do that, they will have truly reclaimed this once outdated and unloved piece.

• The Two Gentlemen of Verona is at Oxford Playhouse from May 15 to 18

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