Emilia and the “Noble” Kinsmen

Written by Christine Schmidle, Director of Vision and Text at FlagShakes, and the director of the 2023 production of The Two Noble Kinsmen

In the fall of 2023, Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival undertook the challenge of producing The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. What started out as a marketing challenge turned out to be an audience favorite! We even had a couple of audience members come to see the production specifically to complete watching the canon.

Prepping the script for rehearsals, I noticed how ambivalent both Shakespeare and Fletcher were in their writing of this play. Fletcher more so than Shakespeare, but even Shakespeare kept his own opinion out of the text quite often. Discovering this opened up a lot more ways of understanding and seeing this play than I had originally thought. Emilia grew from an unidentified character to a young Amazonian who very much knew what she wanted throughout the rehearsal process. And surprisingly, Shakespeare and Fletcher‘s words supported that.

I had the immense fortune to work as Text Associate on the Shakespeare‘s Globe production of The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2018, directed by Barrie Rutter. This meant going into the FlagShakes production was possibly easier for me than many other directors discovering and directing this play. And yet, working on the play in Flagstaff opened up a whole new level of understanding of this play than I had before. FlagShakes prides itself in being an actor led company, and I do think that we discovered a lot more in the rehearsal room because of this model. I don’t think I could have ever envisioned the feisty but firm interpretation of Emilia that our amazingly talented actor Audrey Young took on in this role. It’s a role that is almost impossible to read, and yet, put her on stage, give her some sass, and you have an Amazonian warrior breaking through the predetermined notions of the male-centric world of Athens.

While prepping for this production, I was adamant of highlighting the transcendence of the ages in this play. Our costume designer Rin Hanovich took this assignment and ran with it, and all of a sudden we had all these different worlds colliding and navigating on stage. I did feature Chaucer in a newly added prologue, who appropriately was kept in medieval costumes, followed by the steampunk nature of Athens. This however collided with both the Rocker Babes of the Amazonians and the Adidas-wearing billionaires of Dubai, or rather, Thebes. And then we had the last group grounding the whole design: the tragic world of the working class of Athens – the Jailer and, in our case, her entourage – was in more traditional renaissance costumes. What I liked about Rin’s interpretation was the visualization of the mind sets of these characters. You could tell that both Arcite and Palamon were more interested in the Amazonians because both groups had modern dress, rather than the Jailer’s Daughter in her renaissance garb. You could see the struggles of ‘steampunk’ Theseus having to negotiate with his new ‘biker’ bride Hippolyta, and his desire to get that knot tied before she might decide on a new lover. 

Speaking of Arcite and Palamon, I had thought long and hard how I wanted to portray them. Are these cousins possibly more to each other, lovers even? But besides the incestuous, I actually thought that taking that position would almost make this relationship easier to understand. So, of course I went for the harder decision, and decided to keep them related and really good friends. But what does this mean, today, in our society? How do you portray a very close friendship between two young men, or rather boys, who have fought with each other countless times, therefore are very comfortable with each other physically, and yet are not lovers? I was glad for the 4 weeks of rehearsal to establish this bond, and both Marcus Winn (Arcite) and Anthony Veneziano (Palamon) did an excellent job of showing that comfort level of closeness. And what they also portrayed really well was their constant competitiveness, climaxed in the scene where they are finally both in Emilia’s presence and get to confess their supposed love. ‘Forget I love her?’ says Palamon, and Arcite answers: ‘Though I think / I never shall enjoy her…’ (3.6) Although Emilia is right there in the scene, probably even in front of them, neither Arcite nor Palamon address her directly, but are rather focused on their own competitiveness rather than impressing Emilia herself. What a wonderful and smart little detail in this play; thanks Fletcher! 

Audrey Young, our Emilia, gives a detailed view into her perspective of the character: ‘While Emilia’s opinion, and sometimes actual presence, is overlooked by the male characters around her, she still stands strong in her thoughts and opinions. I believe this is best demonstrated in the scene mentioned above, when Arcite and Palamon battle for her hand in marriage. Alone on stage she makes it clear to the audience that she cannot decide between the two men and a little later, in the presence of Theseus, her opinion is still the same. She cannot be swayed by Theseus or her sister when it comes to taking a life simply because two men want her.’

In the rehearsal room we came across this over and over again. Emilia’s words count. We found that Emilia’s line at the very beginning of the play: ‘If you grant not / my sister her petition … from henceforth I’ll not dare / to ask you anything, nor be so hard / ever to take a husband.’ (1.1) resonated through the play. There was a precedence set, something she had set herself and she was bound by her own word. It was those gems that we discovered together that made this play lift off of the page, and the audience found joy and relevance in it.

Special thanks to the amazing cast, Matthew Windham as Theseus, Julie Chavez Harrington as Hippolyta, Audrey Young as Emilia, Marcus Winn as Arcite, Anthony Veneziano as Palamon, Vicki Thompson as Jailer, Kei-Amber Johnson as Jailer’s Daughter, Sivan Raz as Wooer, David Scandura as Doctor, and last but not least the creative team: Shari Snodgrass as stage manager, John Propster as aesthetic director, Courtney Kenyon as fight choreographer, Hannah Fontes as dance choreographer, Rin Hanovich as costume designer, Simon Cunningham as music director, and our two musicians Jacob Johnson and Alyssa Carpenter. 

The Two Noble Kinsmen is available to stream anytime at flagshakes.org/flagshakes-films/.

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