(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/10;  Photograph: Geraint Lewis.

The theatre director, now teaching at Oxford after years running the RSC, thinks The Two Gentlemen of Verona is perfect for a young cast to argue over. We go into rehearsals

Which is Shakespeare’s least loved play? The Two Gentlemen of Verona would come high on many people’s lists. It is clearly apprentice-work. It has had few significant revivals. And it also raises problematic issues since the treacherous Proteus threatens at one point to rape Silvia who is betrothed to his best friend, Valentine. For these and other reasons it is no one’s favourite play.

This could, however, be about to change. Greg Doran – now officially Sir Gregory – is staging a production at the Oxford Playhouse with student actors. After 35 years as an actor and then director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Doran is this year’s Cameron Mackintosh visiting professor of contemporary theatre at St Catherine’s College. It is a seductive post – whose previous occupants include Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller, Deborah Warner and Adjoa Andoh – which involves giving lectures and workshops. But Doran has had the bright idea of using his tenure to direct the one play in the First Folio that has so far eluded him: The Two Gents. After spending time watching him at work, I have a hunch that he may have cracked some of the problems posed by one of Shakespeare’s early works.

“It is an ideal play,” says Doran, “to do with students. It is about young people leaving home, falling in love, discovering their identities. It even brings back memories of my own experience of leaving Preston to study at Bristol just as Shakespeare’s characters quit Verona to go to Milan. But working on the play has been genuinely collaborative. It’s been a funny old couple of years since the death of my husband [Sir Antony Sher]. I’ve filled it with various displacement activities such as going round the world studying existing copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. What this production enables me to do is get back into a rehearsal room and to pass on what I have learned to the next generation. They are also teaching me. There’s a scene where Launce and Speed, two comic servants, discuss the attributes of a milkmaid. One of the actors said to me that it was exactly like a Hinge profile. I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about until he explained that it was a dating app.”

How, though, do you cast a play when you are unfamiliar with the students’ work? “Well,” says Doran, “80 initially sent in videos. I saw 40 of them in person and cast 20. What is extraordinary is the range of experience. Half the cast are undergraduates: the other half are doing DPhils or master’s degrees in subjects that include neuroscience, the history of art and professional theatre in the Soviet gulags. Three of the cast I’ve discovered also do drag acts.”

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