Two Noble Kinsmen: or Ryan Finally Directs A Real Play



Way back when I finished college, I set myself a five year plan. That was 4 ½ years ago. Some things in that plan simply will not come true. I won’t get a short film into Sundance. I won’t be working full time in the arts. Okay, actually nothing on the plan will happen with one exception. One equally ambitious entry on that list will come to fruition just one week before the five year deadline. This year, from June 22-26, I will direct a stage adaptation of a Shakespeare play.

This was a fairly late entry in my list of life goals. I attended my first ever performance of Shakespeare almost exactly five years ago. I had been curious before then, had read and not hated some of the plays in high school, but at the Guthrie theater that February night, somewhere in the middle of that production of The Winter’s Tale, I fell head over heels in love.

Over the next year I would read every single canonical Shakespeare. I attended performances where I could—watched some of the BBC productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company—obsessed over narratives surrounding the writing of the plays as postulated by many an editor. And from then on I knew directing Shakespeare was something I very much wanted to do. I didn’t know when or how or even which play, but I knew I wanted to direct precisely to make people feel the way I did that night watching The Winter’s Tale. I wanted to make them fall in love.

So anyway, this June I’ll be directing The Two Noble Kinsmen at the Phoenix Theatre. It’s notable for a number of reasons. One, it’s very likely the least performed play in the entire canon. For one stretch it went over two centuries without a single performance. And I should mention there are some really terrible plays in the canon. Even an avowed Bardophile like myself shudders when considering how I might stage full productions of Henry VI Part 1 or Henry VIII.

Of the Shakespeare experts I’ve spoken with, most have never seen it performed and many have never even read it. It’s often excluded from “Complete Works” collections, which is why I didn’t read it during my initial Shakespeare binge. My very first encounter with the play came a little over a month ago, on an audiobook, while driving home to Iowa.

At the time I was working with some friends on possibly staging Julius Caesar. However another company scheduled Ceasar for the same slot we were looking at, and I backed away from the project. However the process had revived my interest in Shakespeare, so I started reading some of the plays that have surfaced as, if not canon, then necessary adjacent reading over the last hundred years. These include Edward III, Double Falsehood (Cardenio), Sir Thomas More, and of course Two Noble Kinsmen.

Naturally I wasn’t expecting much. The other plays in that list aren’t very good, or are uneven at best. However listening to Two Noble Kinsmen on the car ride home I kept waiting for the play to take one of those egregious left turns that would explain its lapsed reputation. This twist never came. Instead, with increasing delight, I found myself dissolving into fits of laughter typically reserved for the best Shakespeare comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night.

Each scene built upon the other with fascinating characters like the Jailer’s daughter, beautiful ritual scenes like the Act 1 wedding, war, and funeral structure, and some of the best, most absurd comedy Shakespeare ever wrote. Act 3 staged a micro version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, commenting on that play’s idealism. There was vast potential for subtext, complexity, playfulness, and visual flare, more than is afforded by many of the more respected plays in the canon. My smile grew wider and wider as I drove home, and by the end of the car ride I knew what I had to do next.

That very night I started looking for theaters. That night I ordered three versions of the script. That night I started reading and planning and studying because I knew this next summer I was going to direct this play, and not doing it was simply not a possibility.

But a quick explanation for why Two Noble Kinsmen never gets performed. The play was co-written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, who was succeeding Shakespeare as the most popular dramatist in England at the time. Most of the registers and documents of the play at its initial performance (1613, possibly the last play Shakespeare ever wrote) accredit it to both Fletcher and Shakespeare. However as Shakespeare retired and faded from the Spotlight and Fletcher took over for another decade, most people stopped bothering with putting Shakespeare in the by-line.

And so doubt grew about whether Shakespeare wrote the play at all. Within 100 years nobody thought Shakespeare wrote it, causing the two hundred year drought as Fletcher fell out of favor with modern audiences. Only with more stringent editorial practices and an acknowledgement of the overwhelming evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship (some plays easily included in the canon have far less evidence backing them) did the play slowly find its way back to the stage.

Today almost all editors generally agree Shakespeare wrote the play. Most even think Shakespeare was the story’s primary architect, writing the first act, last scene, and all the major character introductions. At this point in his career Shakespeare wrote a knotted, incredibly difficult verse that would have been hard to imitate; more importantly, you wonder why anyone would have wanted to.

And so like Edward III, Sir Thomas More, and Cardenio, Two Noble Kinsmen was basically gifted to 20th century audiences as a new Shakespeare play (making that his most productive century in quite some time). Unlike those other plays, Shakespeare’s brilliance can be seen often in Kinsmen.

I think there’s one impulse I’ve found that is an acceptable motive for directing something (other than lots of money. People, I will direct your thing for lots of money): I find something and think, “I love this, and I want to show it to other people so they can love it too.” And the impulse that I felt during Winter’s Tale—that I was seeing something larger than life, pain transcended, beauty embodied, the human experience understood and empathized with in ways I’d never seen before—is also present here.

Granted the play is also totally bonkers. Fletcher and Shakespeare have two different styles, and it’s noticeable. There are two storylines, one tragic and one comedic. The tragic storyline is hilarious and absurd, the comedic storyline devastatingly moving. There is a dance sequence featuring a man in a baboon costume making lewd gestures with his tail. The performance history has also been spotty. More major productions have been failures than successes. There are a number of reasons for this, but if I’m being honest, the challenge (and the absolute goldmine of material that lures people to accept it) is a large part of what excites me.

Imagine, directing Shakespeare where the audience doesn’t know how it ends. Imagine getting an audience full of passionate viewers who are all seeing Twelfth Night or Macbeth for the first time ever. This summer I get to do that.

So I will be using this blog to post updates. The first staged reading of the show is this next Saturday. If you feel so inclined, you should join us. Otherwise please stay in touch and save those dates on your calendar for later this year. I promise I will bring it.


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