“People who want ‘traditional’ Shakespeare – I don’t know what that is,” laughs Nick Bagnall. “I like to think if Shakespeare was here today he’d be using all he possibly could to be telling stories.”
“When he was around, there was music, song, dance, audience interaction, all of it, he was always playing with theatre.”
Bagnall, associate director at the Everyman and Playhouse, has several acclaimed Shakespearean productions under his belt – the Ev’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with now-Tony award winner Cynthia Erivo among them – but his latest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, is a different kettle of fish for a few reasons.
It’s been on tour since the spring; a co-production with the Globe Theatre. It’s no understatement to say it’s not one of the Bard’s classics, so Bagnall knew it need to be drastically shaken up. As part of this, its Swinging Sixties vibe and musical ensemble cast have left audiences and critics hungry for more.
Many of the big-hitting productions that have built up Bagnall’s career in recent years have, it happens, all had ties to the Globe; a fortuitous mix of partnerships with the Everyman and Playhouse, good working relationships with peers including its former artistic director Dominic Dromgoole and the poet Simon Armitage (Odyssey, Missing Presumed Dead among them), and his close ties with the new artistic director Emma Rice.
Rice, formerly of Everyman’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase collaborator Kneehigh, took the helm of the theatre in April this year, and her lack of traditional Shakespearean grounding landed her in the middle of a media storm. “Milady Rice” sneered the Telegraph at the time, “gained a victory for the diversity police.” In the melee of our chat I forget to ask Bagnall what he thought of all that, but it’s clear enough that he and Rice are cut from similar cloth, with a firm belief that Shakespeare is for everyone, there to be enjoyed, modernised, and not just to impress some perceived highbrow elite. Soon enough, the job of directing the Globe’s touring production for the year was his to turn down.
It wasn’t a matter of playing second fiddle to the main stage in London. “Emma’s big thing is to make sure the Globe’s touring productions have the same standards as the main house, and that’s not always been the case,” Bagnall says.
As a director, it was, he says, a chance to shake off a little boredom with the way he was making theatre, and get thinking about doing things a little differently. A large, international tour didn’t faze him – his Henry VI trilogy was performed on the plays’ real-life battlefields in 2013; nor the intensity of the workload, including opening up rehearsals to the public – but the play itself was a doozy.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is thought to have one of been Shakespeare’s first plays – and it didn’t make much of an impression even in 1598. Revivals have been notably sparse, and in recent times generally not very well-received, even with names attached to them like Sir Peter Hall.
A tale of two young men, Valentine and Proteus, trying to win the hearts of their fair ladies Julia and Sylvia, it introduces a lot of the devices that would become standard within The Bard’s comedies – cross-dressing espionage, enchanted forests, a not-so foolish fool, a happy ending. But its naïve writing and unpleasant attitude towards its female characters hasn’t really stood the test of time.
“When the Globe mentioned Two Gents… I wasn’t mad about the play,” Bagnall begins, cautiously, with a grin. Eventually, he admits his trepidation had been more than just a cautious dislike, so much so it was basically on his own personal blacklist of work he swore he would never professionally touch with a bargepole.
“I’d only ever seen it once, and I left at the interval. It wasn’t even a bad production – it just didn’t hit me.”
But the freedom with which he was being granted to meet the challenge was appealing, and the passion for the production he has created is nothing if not genuine – and infectious. “I was allowed to be really brave,” he says. “Change the language, cut it severely, place it somewhere really specific. It was a fresh approach to what is seen as a problem play, and we have had a great response.”
Immediately, the controversial ending – no spoilers – which is distasteful at best and at worst pertains to sexual assault, domestic abuse and female compliance, was changed. “To a modern audience, that’s just not on,” Bagnall puts it mildly.
So, the Two Gents now exist in 1966, a year that saw a real culture shift, as American style made its way over the Atlantic and pop culture really came into its own (Bagnall was inspired in part by the Jon Savage Book, 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded).
Music plays a huge part in the production – it has its own Spotify playlist – and its hardworking ensemble perform live numbers throughout the show. The cast includes Everyman regular Adam Keast to boot, and if he can handle a rock ‘n’ roll panto, then this one should be a walk in the park.
After a six month stint of touring venues small and large, indoor and outdoor, including Hamlet’s castle Elsinor in Denmark and for crowds of nearly 3000 people in Bulgaria, Two Gents is now on its final laps.
“Naturally a play is going to shift and bend as you tour, and venues will dictate everything. But the key was always to have an open-hearted, accessible, quality to the show. Something that’s fun, and challenges the play, and demystifies Shakespeare,” Bagnall says.
It hits the Globe – and purists beware it is the first show ever to be amplified in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Theatre – for a practically sold out run from next week, and then finishes at the Everyman from October 5 to 29. As the tour draws to a close, Bagnall is looking forward to getting it on home turf; not just the action on stage, but through activities throughout the building and subsequent outreach work. There will also be a relaxed performance.
“The Everyman and the Globe are just a great fit, and this had to be a co-production. I wanted it to have a life here and I said that right from the beginning – it’s a perfect marriage. And the thing is,” he grins. “I know this audience a lot more now. They’ll tell you when it’s shit, but also when it’s good, and I think people will be proud of this being an Everyman show.”
Although with that, the production, he surmises, is probably coming to its natural conclusion.
“Yeah, I’m incredibly proud of this one, probably more than most things,” Bagnall admits. “I never thought I’d ever do it. I love theatre with a sense of joy, and our Two Gents is a bloody good night out. Finishing at the Everyman makes perfect sense. I’ll be sad when it’s over, but it’s ready for those final two beats. It will be a shot in the arm to see what Liverpool people think.”