Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - The Venetian Twins

26th May to 10th July 2004.

From The Times.

Four stars
When the RSC produced The Servant of Two Masters a few years back, there was too much mugging in it, too many pratfalls, for my taste, but The Venetian Twins, also by Goldoni, is more than a one-joke play and far the better for it.

Of course there is a single joke at its core: long-separated brothers who arrive at the same town on the same day, and cause confusion when cash, jewels and declarations of love are handed to the wrong people. But the characters are individuated and flavoursome, or have certainly become so in Ranjit Bolt’s merry translation. The merriment even encompasses two deaths, which isn’t generally an ingredient of farce or comedy or whatever combination of the two defines the style of this enjoyable evening.

The creative team is the same that mounted a smashing version of Lope de Vega’s The Gentleman from Olmedo here last month. The actors are the same and the set too, except that Mike Britton’s vertical planking around a bare stage is now pierced with windows, through which characters comment on the action or flirt with lovers below.

We are in Verona and here comes the first identical twin, Zanetto, rich and something of a bumpkin. In the original he spoke in dialect, and Bolt switches from Apennines to Pennines to give him a sort of George Formby inanity — “Ee, I’m that desperate” — to contrast with his Venetian brother, Tonino, urbane and tremendously well spoken. Tonino is calling himself Zanetto, for a reason that whirled past me, but the introductory family histories are quirkily sent up by the cast and in truth we lose little by it.

Both twins are played by Michael Matus, specialising in freezing his face whenever the Veronese present fresh evidence of communal madness. As one brother he becomes disdainfully puzzled, as the other gawpy and alarmed. The effects are very funny, though what has been sacrificed is Goldoni’s apparent wish to present the bumpkin as more admirable than the city dweller.

Jonathan Munby’s direction is crisp and swift-moving, at one point hurling into surrealism when Daniel Coonan’s thwarted poltroon dives into the audience, seemingly wrenches off a woman’s leg and defends himself with her stiletto heel.

Dash and quick speaking, not penetrating psychology, is the required formula for such a play, the exception being the Tartuffe-like priest Pancrazio, absurd yet malignant. Jonathan Oliver’s slinky posturing and ever-fluttering hands reveal the wickedness without abandoning the comedy.

JEREMY KINGSTON

From the Sunday Times.

Three stars
This is like champagne: heady, fizzy and cool. Goldoni’s famous comedy farce (1747) clearly owes something to both Shakespeare and Plautus: twin brothers being mistaken for each other in a strange town. The plotting is not quite as seamless as Shakespeare’s, but this is one of the plays that brought new sophistication to the traditional commedia dell’arte. The two brothers look identical but are different characters: much more dramatic than the theatre of types. Jonathan Munby’s production, with its 1950s setting, sparkles with humour, and the farcical scenes are choreographed with mad precision. The lecherous-treacherous parasite Pancrazio (Jonathan Oliver) is played as a Catholic priest; I can’t see why — it doesn’t fit the text. Michael Matus is the star of the show, and the cast play together like a seasoned ensemble. A treat, a palpable treat.

JOHN PETER

From the Daily Telegraph.

Farce that bubbles with life

No question about it, Jonathan Munby's riotous staging of The Venetian Twins at the Watermill is a wonderfully silly joy to behold.

Goldoni's spaghetti-tangle of a farce gets superheated to just the right degree of bubbling mania by a 12-strong ensemble that's clearly on a roll after the success last month of Lope de Vega's The Gentleman from Olmedo.

All the same, it would be quite possible to sit through the entire affair marvelling at the play's crudeness when set beside The Comedy of Errors, with which comparisons are as unfavourable as they are unavoidable.

I Due Gemelli Veneziani revolves around an escalating case of mistaken identity. A pair of identical twin brothers, Zanetto and Tonino - the former a rich but dim-witted merchant, raised apart from his sibling, the latter a high-principled gentleman - wind up in Verona at the same time.

Multiple confusions ensue: Zanetto's bride-to-be Rosaura can't work out whether he's a repellent oaf or a real catch; Tonino's lover Beatrice, meanwhile, is driven to distraction by his apparent infidelity. Servants are left bewildered, the brothers distracted, and no one thinks to put two and two together until the very last minute.

The great claim always made on behalf of this work, first staged in 1748, is that it illustrates how Goldoni helped transform Italian theatre by moving away from a reliance on the stock characterisation of the commedia dell'arte tradition.

But Shakespeare, writing a century and a half earlier, had not only managed to double the comic carry-on of his model (Plautus's Menaechmi) by introducing identical servants, but had reached into areas of darkness and self-doubt that The Venetian Twins barely registers.

Goldoni's caper resolves itself through abrupt tragedy wrought by poisoning, but no feeling arises other than the sort of exhausted elation that comes when a very good joke has been flogged to death.

Still, who's complaining about a surfeit of surface, when the surface is as beautifully polished as it is here? Munby has set the action in the suave but shallow Dolce Vita era, not ideal for denoting a time when women were chattels, but perfect for pitting one swaggering, slick-haired male against another.

Ranjit Bolt's translation - first used by the RSC in 1993 - crackles with liberty-taking wit. "Fighting this pepper-filled paper bag is about as dangerous as sucking an egg," sneers Michael Matus's imperiously well-bred Tonino, debonair in cream-linen suit and cravat, as he faces up to a lisping, strutting coxcomb.

Bolt has given his twin Zanetto an exaggeratedly daft-sounding, Lancashire accent, but it's in the disconcerting way that Matus vacates his eyes and furrows his brow that the magical switch into peasanty otherness is fully achieved. Though less frenetically in-demand, the supporting cast are equally assured, darting around Mike Britton's sleek wooden set to blasts of snappy jazz.

Catherine Cusack is on radiant form as the bewildered Rosaura, Drew Mulligan displays considerable comic clout as the put-upon Northern lackey Arlecchino, and Jonathan Oliver steals every scene as the grasping priest Pancrazio.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

Kick FM's review.

This is an eighteenth century play by Carlo Goldoni with a modern translation by Ranjit Bolt, and it’s a mistaken identity farce. The cast and the set are the same as the Watermill’s last production, The Gentleman from Olmedo, and the acting is excellent, especially from Michael Matus, who switched brilliantly between the twins – country bumpkin and smooth city slicker. But although there are laughs, and the cast give it all they’ve got, I was disappointed with the play as a whole; I didn’t find it funny enough or gripping enough, and not as satisfying as The Gentleman from Olmedo. But it’s had good reviews from the national press, and it’s interesting to see how it compares with Shakespeare’s many mistaken identity comedies.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Who's who in Verona?

The Venetian Twins, at The Watermill Theatre, until July 10

The Watermill's production of The Venetian Twins is simply a joy! Premiered in 1748, Carlo Goldini's comic play is a heady combination of farce and comic conventions all played with utter conviction and pace by this excellent ensemble company under the assured direction of Jonathan Munby.

The play, translated by Ranjit Bolt, revolves around mistaken identity. Unaware of each other's presence, a pair of identical twins arrive in Verona seeking to marry.

Tonino is a sophisticated, well-spoken gentleman, resplendent in a cream-coloured suit and cravat, whereas his slightly dishevelled brother, Zanetto, is a rich country bumpkin with a broad Lancashire accent.

Both parts are superbly played with panache and an abundance of energy by Michael Matus, who switches characters so effectively that you did begin to wonder if there really were two actors.

Jonathan Oliver was splendid as the animated lecherous priest Pancrazio, trying to persuade Zanetto not to proceed with the marriage proposal in order that he can have his wicked way with the lovely Rosaura (Catherine Cusack).

Meanwhile Beatrice (Marianne Oldham), the other lover, is totally perturbed by Tonino's apparent infidelity, and as the plot twists and turns, the confusion grows.

Daniel Coonan's strutting peacock of a count, with a wonderful lisp, added to the hilarity. His duel with Tonino was quite absurd, particularly when he borrowed an artificial NHS leg from someone in the audience and used the stiletto heel to help in the fight. This was great knockabout comedy.

As for the servants, they are all swept along by the heady mix of confusion. Drew Mulligan was delightful as Arlecchino, the much down-trodden servant to Zanetto.

The denouement was almost as complex as the plot and is delivered at a rattling pace with much disbelief and surprise.

Mike Britton's stylish, stark set consisted of wooden panels that revealed opening doors and windows where the cast comment on the action.

This was a sparkling, frenetic production which combined all the right ingredients of farce, wit, some funky jazz interludes and an excellent troupe of actors to make a hugely enjoyable evening's entertainment. Don't miss it!

ROBIN STRAPP