We’ll go over this again, simply, for the uninstructed. Shakespeare was a professional playwright, part owner of a theater company. He wrote for money, and his function was to supply plays as needed. Somewhere around the time of his retirement, a royal wedding was celebrated, and the troupe (which had royal sponsorship) needed an important new play to contribute to the festivities. Either they appealed to Shakespeare and he obligingly squeezed out the first and fifth acts of something new, or they took up these scraps of something he’d left unfinished, and Fletcher (whose previous collaborator, Beaumont, had just made a rich marriage and given up the theater) filled the gaps in the outline with suitable matter.
Either way, The Two Noble Kinsmen is no more than 40 percent Shakespeare. Like Pericles, it wasn’t included in the First Folio, probably because the company didn’t view it as sufficiently his work; the title page of the original published text lists Fletcher first. You can easily hear the difference in the theater: Though sculpted in his grave, gnarly later style, Shakespeare’s lines have a distinct, authoritative ring that Fletcher, a clever and tolerably skilled craftsman, can’t match. The result is a play that’s rarely staged—this is only the second New York production; I reviewed the first for this paper in 1973—because its drama is at best no more than mildly interesting. But 40 percent Shakespeare, like 40 percent cashmere, gives a quality feel, and Fletcher, though alternately silky and woolly, is no synthetic fiber either. So their mixture makes a wearable theatrical garment.
The medieval tale of Palamon and Arcite, best friends who love the same girl and agonize separately over whether to sacrifice love to friendship or vice versa, offered appropriately dignified fodder for a state occasion, as well as courtly romance of a kind that was making a nostalgic comeback in the 1610s. The literate knew the story from its rendering by Chaucer, the man who, Harold Bloom notwithstanding, actually invented the human in English literature. To suit the ritzy taste of the upper-class crowd at the indoor theater the King’s Men had just taken over, Fletcher dished up a low subplot that’s a tragicomic parody of the main plot. Palamon and Arcite are prisoners of war; Arcite is condemned to exile and Palamon to death. Their jailer’s daughter, falling in love with Palamon (as he and Arcite have with the princess whose brother holds them prisoner), lets him escape and then goes mad for love of him, ignoring her peasant suitor. Fletcher loved kidding Shakespeare, and the girl’s madness is like a Saturday Night Live version of Ophelia’s.
Darko Tresnjak’s production, ingeniously played on a triangular wedge of stage that echoes the triangular love affair, errs in taking this secondary story altogether too earnestly. But then, the insanity of vulgarians isn’t as funny to us as it was to a Jacobean aristo; we live in a world controlled by insane vulgarians. Tresnjak gets rather better results, though, with the hieratic main plot, where he has Shakespeare’s rich, bronze-cast language to work with, plus actors who can speak it with only minimal struggle. The one big disappointment here is David Harbour as Arcite, who speaks soddenly, one word at a time, never managing to make language and feeling merge convincingly. But nobody ever claimed late Shakespeare was easy to act; Harbour, who’s shown ability in both classic and contemporary plays, will surely do better in a script that offers smoother sledding.
The other principals—Graham Hamilton as Palamon; delicate Doan Ly as the princess both men love; Sam Tsoutsouvas and Opal Alladin as the rulers of the kingdom in question—all manage admirably, on the whole. The supporting cast is mostly less involving, but Jennifer Ikeda’s serious rendition of the jailer’s daughter is more touching than her overwrought antics (under a different director) in the Public’s recent As You Like It might have led one to expect; and some praise is due to that woefully underutilized actress, Candy Buckley, for her droll cameo as 1613’s idea of a shrink. Tresnjak’s staging has some annoying mannerisms, like having characters exit while someone else is still speaking to them, and in doubling the minor roles he employs a kind of uninflected drag that gives no effect at all. But in general he hews to what he finds in the play, creating stylized physical patterns that underscore both the antiquity and the ritual-like symmetry of the narrative.
This is a story in which nobody gets to be happy without also becoming deeply unhappy, or vice versa, and in which every measure of joy is darkened by a sense of tragic loss. There’s something sane and solemn to it, nicely captured in Tresnjak’s production, that makes most subsequent playwriting look like very small potatoes. Since that feeling resides largely in Shakespeare’s part of the enterprise, maybe 40 percent is more than usually thought.