“Two friends, both alike in dignity in fair Verona where we lay our scene” were the words with which Two Gents kicked off their amazing adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at The Globe on 9 May, taking a leaf out of another Shakespeare play.
I had heard of Two Gents, namely Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu, before through friends, but to be honest not much – at least not even enough to know that they were based in London, and had not flown all the way in from Harare to perform at The Globe as part of the Globe to Globe Season which saw 37 Shakespeare plays performed in 37 languages by theatre companies from around the world. And true to our Fabulous African and Black ethos, we felt duty-bound to attend the African adaptations. And hence, there I was on a chilly May evening on the second story of The Globe, trying to recall a play I had last read whilst doing my MA as it was performed in a language not similar to any I know.
Now, those of you who are familiar with Shakespeare’s tale of betrayal in Milan via Verona and its multitude of gentlemen suitors and love triangles would know just how tricky it is to follow the twists and turns of the plot as Proteus falls for Julia, Julia for Proteus, Valentine (who travels to Milan in the first scene) falls for Silvia, as Proteus (who also leaves for Milan on his father’s orders) also falls for Silvia, Valentine plots to elope with Silvia, Proteus plots to win Silvia’s affections, Julia travels to Milan, disguised as a man, in pursuit of Proteus, so on and so forth until the sudden happy ending where differences are put aside, betrayals forgotten and lovers reunited.
Now add to this the tricky nature of following a play in a different language, occasionally helped by my companion, and the two gentlemen of London (via Harare) seated next to us who take pity upon seeing my blank face to whisper translations of the jokes I miss. And finally for good measure complicate the experience further by having two actors play the parts of the two gentlemen, and their lady loves they quarrel over, a duke, a suitor, a servant, a clown and a dog.
Despite the initial difficulty to keep up with what is going on – unless you know the play by heart or are following it on your iPhone, like some (Even the actors stop the play in Act 2 asking the non-Zimbabwean audience “You don’t know what’s going on, do you?” and much later in Act 4 when they stumble upon their lines, quickly slip in, “I forgot my line but they didn’t get it!”- Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyevu so masterfully slip into all of the play’s fifteen characters through the use of a handful of props that by mid-Act 2 you have a fairly good idea of who is who. A white glove turns Petrous into Silvia while a scarf tied as a skirt turns him into Julia – and the two actors alternating between different genders and parts means at the parting of lovers in Verona, we witness a full on kiss between the actors. An audible gasp from the audience followed by incredulous guffaws.
In a play performed entirely in Shona, comedy is provided for the non-Zimbabwean audience through the mastery of the two actors, international language of music and hilarious audience interaction.
Modern day musical references come in the form of contemporary music songs – Chikura sings Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women Part 1” as Julia who is preparing to travel to Milan on her own and Akon’s “Lonely” as Valentine as he plays the traditional Zimbabwean instrument mbira. There is even a musical battle between Silvia’s suitors Valentine and Sir Thurrio. Cultural references come thick and fast too, such as when Julia’s boy disguise is mocked by her maid who compares her walk to first 50 Cent saying it is too manly, then to Graham Norton to indicate she is overdoing it. All the while, much like Shakespearean theatre, it doesn’t escape our attention that Julia is indeed a man acting a woman trying to act like a man.
When it comes to interactions with an at times bewildered audience, these are moments of pure hilarity – seeing an unfortunate Zimbabwean man in the yard having to hand his shoe over to Chikura only to be told it stinks, Munyevu referring to a woman in the audience with the words from Act 3 Scene 1 of the play “There is a lady here in Verona whom I affect…” only to replace the words “but she is nice and coy” with “but she doesn’t understand a word I say” and of course three unsuspecting audience members being plucked out of the yard to play the parts of forest bandits, being puppeteered by the two actors – a scene of hilarity which sees the audience doubled up in laughter.
As much as the forced happy ending goes, Chikura and Munyevu’s acting takes a turn from comic to poignant as they portray the feeling of betrayal Julia feels at finding her fiance chase another woman. The laughter dies down, as the two women (men) are left on stage consoling each other. For once, the meaning is not lost in translation, all the more credit to the two gents’ acting prowess.
Photos: Ellie Kurttzby