Award-winning, London-based Two Gents Productions has embarked on their first tour of Australia, having received enormous critical acclaim for their explorations of Shakespeare's classic plays through the eyes of modern Zimbabweans, blending a fresh cultural perspective with physically engaging and intimate performances.
One of the Two Gentlemen, Denton Chikura, speaks to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.
Denton, your earliest and most vivid memory of Shakespeare?
Reading and then re-reading Hamlet again and again for my 'A’ level English literature. Completely went over my head. It’s pretty humbling that after 3 years of performing Hamlet, a lot of it still does.
What continues to astonish and inspire you about the depth and breadth of Shakespeare's works?
How lucky Shakespeare is. He doesn’t have to endure dreary days in the corner of a rehearsal room with a pushy director and needy actors ripping apart his work. As a new writer I envy the bullet proof vest death affords you. If you could pull this off without having to die…well. That said, his writing is pretty solid.
Do you have a personal fave Shakespeare play?
It has to be Two Gentlemen of Verona because it’s the one I’ve come to know inside out back to front. I know half the text – because I’ve got to perform it, and though shoddily written I’ve come to love it. I’ve also had the privilege of watching Tonderai really grow into the role of Proteus and develop immensely as an actor. Though we’ve performed that show over 200 times, I never tire of watching him. He makes the show for me.
Two Gents is actually three people – tell me about your crew/backgrounds and the fabulous story behind your company's inception, when, where why and how did it come about?
Arne had just worked at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and had fallen in love with protest theatre. As a Shakespeare graduate the notion of applying that aesthetic was not far. Two Gentlemen of Verona by Two Gentlemen was all that was needed to get the creative juices flowing. He found me and Tonderai in London where we’d been based for a few years. We both immediately bought into his vision and started rehearsing wherever we could find space. I remember rehearsing in Arne’s living room, a first preview in my living room and a first showcase in front of about eight people. Fortunately one of those people was Oval Theatres Ben Evans who after a journal of notes told us he’d book our show. The rest is history.
Tell me about the most formative experience you had when your company went from the wings of obscurity and captured the imagination and someting of the attention of a wider audiences, critical attention, praise and popular appeal.
The performances we did at the Globe were a real turning point for us. We’re a touring company and thus have spent most of our time as a company on the road. We’d been plugging away on the fringe, regional and rural touring scene, and had garnered some success on the European Shakespeare festival circuit. But because we hadn’t done all of that of that in London it was almost like it hadn’t happened. After the Globe people were like "where’ve you been?." We weren’t prepared for the reaction to it all but should have known that we were going to do well – our show honed over 3 and half years in front of the most toughest audiences, a commission to perform that show in our native tongue to a home audience, add that Globe stage and you get a home run. It was epic.
How do you describe the Two Gentleman of Verona in seven words?
Scattergun. Riotous. Hilarious. Triumphant. Moving.
And Kupenga Kwa Hamlet?
Brave. Sparse. Emotive. Hilarious. Sad. Tragic.
Why these two plays; the politics, the state, the stateliness, the secrets perhaps?
With Two Gentlemen of Verona it was all about the title – Two Gentlemen of Verona by Two Gentlemen.
Because Two Gentlemen had done so well, we thought we’d tackle something a little more challenging for our next project. They don’t come much harder than Hamlet. Clarity had been a bit of an issue earlier on with Two Gent’s as it’s rarely done – we figured most people roughly knew the story of Hamlet thus would be able to fill in the blanks that you inevitably get when two people attempt to perform such a sprawling behemoth of a play.
Tell me about the contemporary settings for each of these plays?
We’ve set the play in Zimbabwe but have kept the characters names and locations. It’s still the same play really – just with a healthy dollop of Zimbabwean song, accented moves and instantly recognizable Zimbabwean figures. Oh, and done by two actors.
Is there a Zimbabwean expression that you feel sums up/encapsulates the Two Gents approach to a unique celebration of Shakespeare, the alchemy of western and african?
A celebration of doing without.
I just made that up – but in a nutshell that’s exactly what we do.
Two Gents productions of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Kupenga Kwa Hamlet opens in Perth Feb 26, 2013, before touring to Wollongong (from March 5), Parramatta (from March 12) and Canberra (from March 19). Visit www.twogentsproductions.com/shows
Top right – (l-r) Tonderai Munyebvu and Denton Chikura. Photo – Gorm Shackelford.