With a spring in its step, the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble forges a faithful and playful path through one of Shakespeare’s little-performed, earliest romantic comedies.
The good news for everyone from Shakespeare-phobes to devotees is that this Westernised as in cowboy production is mostly lighthearted entertainment, occasionally similar to Romeo & Juliet but with little of its angst. Dog lovers will be happy too, of which more later.
Although the first Act takes a little while to warm up, the evening quickly begins to rollick along thereafter.
Initially, the two Gentlemen, Valentine and Proteus, are bound by close friendship; but while romance cynic Valentine wants adventure, Proteus is paralysed by his love for Julia. After travelling to the Duke of Milan’s territory, though, Valentine himself falls in love, with the Duke’s daughter Silvia.
Meanwhile, Proteus follows Valentine, instructed by his father to see something of the world; he arrives instead to see Silvia and fall for her despite his parting promises to Julia. As the comedy takes on a shadowy tinge, Proteus undermines Valentine.
Everyone’s deceptions catch up with them in the end, and director Rob Pensalfini fashions a thought-provoking finale which reflects that the men of the title have not been so unwaveringly gentle after all.
The production’s Western theme, which includes QSE’s customary live music, grounds the action and characters nicely. While Micheal Croome affects a credibly low-key Southern burr in his cattle baron take on the the Duke of Milan, other cast members sensibly stick with their natural accents (memorable interludes with campy bandidos aside). Performances are lively and, generally, poised; Claire Pearson is especially fine as Valentine’s clownish servant Speed.
The undisputed star of the show, though, is QSE artistic director Rob Pensalfini’s pet dog Gumnut in the part of Crabbe. As companion to Proteus’s roguish servant Launce (Pensalfini as onstage master too), this Crabbe belies his master’s berating of him by being irresistibly attentive and cuddly.
As gorgeous as he is, Gumnut risks being typecast after this triumphant stage debut and so should look to broaden his range. Can gorgeous dogs discover an inner viciousness in the name of Art? Should they have to? Only Rob Pensalfini and perhaps the RSPCA can judge.