I suppose a show called The Course of True Love (which ran smoother than the line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream from which the title comes from would suggest) might not attract the attention of those who are wholly unfamiliar with William Shakespeare’s plays. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have encountered it in one way or another, most commonly perhaps through studying (or trying to study) a Shakespeare play at secondary school, though I’m reliably told this is far from universal, whether one’s school days were two years, twenty-two years or forty-two years ago. But it’s telling that the audience is invited to name as many Shakespeare plays extracts were taken from, with the promise of a free drink for anyone who could correctly reel off ten or more. Less is more, y’see.
It’s not quite more than ten plays condensed into a show that runs at just under an hour, but rather bits borrowed from each to concoct a whole new play. That doesn’t stop it from being so rapidly paced that there’s a danger in not being able to properly follow the narrative whilst trying to keep up with it. Scene changes, while always very smooth, jump to a seemingly unspecified point in the future, and I wondered at one stage whether this was, strictly speaking, entirely in chronological order. (It wasn’t, in the end, that complicated.)
But as far as I could deduce neither of the characters, played by Simão Vaz and Imogen Parker, were named. I don’t know if that in itself would have helped me connect to the narrative more, but in any event, it all came across as a spoken version of a song cycle rather than a journey depicting a relationship with a beginning, middle and end. This being Shakespeare, it’s not exactly a blissful ending, but the Edinburgh Fringe audience is at least spared the fake blood that (certain) London production companies are all too fond of.
Familiarity with the original texts is potentially problematic, in that one cannot help, for instance, think of them when they are being quoted from. Whether the many love letters are from, say, As You Like It, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Hamlet – or something else, or a combination of these and/or others – would be giving too much away. I would have preferred an alternative take on one of the Shakespeare plays, majoring on minor characters in the way in which Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead looks at Hamlet from a different angle. Still, this patchwork quilt of a love story is superbly acted. For love is indeed, “A madness most discreet / A choking gall and a preserving sweet”.
A star rating is dispensed with for this SE Theatre Company production: I was informed afterwards the show is a work in progress.