One Man, Two Guvnors

Ashley Euyoung Kim
7 min readApr 10, 2021

Written by Ashley Euyoung Kim in Feb, 2020 as IB MYP Theater & Drama training course, the following content is an analysis of a a play, “One Man, Two Guovuors” screened by the National Theater.

“One Man, Two Guovuors” is a performance screened at the National Theater in England since 2011. The play is an English translation of an Italian playwright Carlo Goldini’s original classic comedy, “The Servant of Two Masters”, having its style and genre rooted in the classical European comedy genre & style, Commedia Dell’arte. From that, modern playwright Richard Bean has altered the names of characters, relocated the geographical setting, and changed various plotting points but still adapting the original director’s choice of characteristics and plot structure. Thus, “One Man, Two Guovuors” displays brilliant comic aspects of the Commedia alongside it’s adjusted humor targeted for modern audiences.

However, before explaining the structure and thus more complicated background structure, it would be helpful to earnestly examine and reflect the deliberate choices made from the directors, designers, lighting technicians, and actors. The production noticeably incorporates elements of variety, including music hall, pantomime, stand- up comedy, and end-of-the-pier shows; all of which, in varying degrees, owe something to the genre of commedia according to Richard Bean. One choice that specifically stands out in the overall show are the musical directions; esp. a skiffle music band playing between, start, and end of the scenes. Skiffle is a musical genre influenced from jazz, blues, and American folk music, which was extremely popular in 1950s Britain. The actors themselves also come on stage during various numbers, speciality playing car horns, xylophones, ukuleles etc. This choice deliberately evokes the era of 1963 seaside town Brighton, with musical performances popular in the early half of the twentieth century.

Alongside music, costume and makeup choices also succeeded to underscore the historical background of the play. Most costumes were reasonably realistic enough for the audience to believe that the scenes took place in specific time periods, also showing a praiseworthy effect in revealing characteristics and importance. For example, I found that Francis’s costume was designed in a playful and delightful material with a three piece suit of yellowish brown check patterns. The warm colors represented his cheery, light hearted personality and the bold checks highlighted his uniqueness as a protagonist. These costume aspects allowed Francis to stand out as a character, while still convincing the audience he belonged to 1960s UK.

Most of the lighting choices were used intuitively, just to assist viewing the stage characters — for example, like sunlight or a basic light source. Many enhanced the drama and experience of the audience by suggesting different locations or the passing of time. For example, at the latter scene where Stanley and Rachel miraculously reunite on the bridge at night, there are two bright street lamps that work as the main light sources. Except for the lamps, other parts of the stage are relatively dark in order to deliberately express the scene that takes place at night time.

Also, specific use of light and stage color were once again, dedicating the mood for 1960s time period. I noticed the directors choices for using warm, oldish colors including yellow, brown, red, pink, and brownish blue. Therefore I speculate that the lighting technicians and designers would have avoided the use of unnatural or modern solid colors.

Lastly, the show contained a number of tech involving, with a complex amount of stage a live band, sliding flats, flying flats, trapdoors, automation. The director’s note process during rehearsals did address that the management of tech was a concerning issue, but eventually it has made the overall stage levels more interesting and entertaining.

To begin with, I must identify that the play was very entertaining to me. It featured grounds of humorous dialogues and physical comedy, alongside enjoyable skiffle music and character building. I was specifically amazed by the capacity of the actors who really indulged the idea of Commedia characters and physicalization.

Many of us were able to identify these genres and styles by bringing up prior knowledge dedicated to past experiences in acting and presenting research findings from the grade 9 Commedia dell’arte unit.

Commedia dell’arte is an Italian theatrical form that flourished throughout Europe from the 16th through the 18th century. A typical Commedia scenario involved a love story of a young couple thwarted by their parents. I would normally use symmetrical pairs of characters: two elderly men, two lovers, two zanni, a maidservant, a soldier, and extras. This form is also well shown in “One Man, Two Guvnors”, where there are multiple character relationships in symmetrical pairs: Dolly and Francis, Pauline and Allen, Rachel and Stanley, etc. Characters of the show each indulge a different Commedia style character. For instance, the main character Francis(played by James Cordan) arrays with Harlequino(Harlequin, Harlequinade), a comic servant character. The National Theatre portrays Harlequin as a light-hearted, nimble, and astute servant, often acting to thwart the plans of his master(guvnor), and pursuing his own love interest,

Columbina(Dolly). He is witty, and later develops into a prototype of the romantic hero although he borrows the power of ‘Paddy’. Eventually, he proposes to Dolly, and earned a romantic week abroad Majorca. As Harlequin, Francis inherits his physical agility and his trickster qualities, quite screwing up the duties under two guvnors. The famous table scene — where Francis serves dinner to both masters simultaneously — is a comic representation of the overall plot itself where Harlequin builds commotion between two masters. In addition, Francis also carries characteristics of the other servant, Brighella. Brighella is also a middle class servant, but shows the look of preternatural lust and greed as well as intelligence. The more detailed starrings corresponding to Commedia characters are as below:

Briefly mentioning other characters as well, Dolly is portrayed as Columbina: clever, a functional intellect, often lower class, both the lovers and the characters who block their love(trick slave stock character). We find out clues that she is likely middle class or lower from her costume, or plot affordance of tickets. She succeeds in her own love with Francis, but obstructs Pauline’s love with Allen. I also noticed that she displays intelligence by crossing the borders of fiction and metafiction, mentioning feminism waves in the 1960~70s and women Suffrage movements. (not happened yet in the play setting!) She speaks directly to the audience and is intelligent enough to acknowledge the crowd view, also one of the most prominent comic aspects of Commedia. (character speaking out and addressing audience: again, metafiction)

Lazzi is a comic set piece which has been handed down through generations of commedia improvisations. A Zanni, with either his hands bound or holding plates of food, slaps another character in the face with his foot.

Although the play is generally in the form of Commedia dell’arte, it does not take on the concepts of wearing masks. This decision was actually made byt the original playwright, Goldini. He banned masks which he felt were an unnecessary barrier between performer and audience — exploring real Italian life onstage. Goldini’s script comments on contemporary issues and relationships, fairly portraying people from different classes, condemning the immoral whether they were poor or rich. The adapted play, as well, shows characters in variety of social classes with personalities.

Personally examining, I found that most of the audience(us, BHA Drama students) would perceive the particular plot and british dialogue of the play unfamiliar as most of us connect to Asian cultures. However, at the same time allowing us to interpret theatre attempts and comedy rather new. To explain why, I must mention the particular levels of linguistic texture with implied connotations or simply the verbal(speaking) actings which acted out as barriers for a full understanding of the play.

Exterior hardships were fast ping-pong exchanging dialogues and indistinguishable pronunciations (due to the unfamiliarness toward British pronunciation, I assume not actors). Moreover, there were various expressions with implied connotations rooted from geographical, cultural, and historical information targeted for a specific audience. One good example of expression which “requires heavy background knowledge” can be adages or bible quotations. In this case, it is quite likely that the director expects his or her audience was naturally exposed to an environment consisting of high concentration in packed UK background content behind the scene.

Thus, the choice makes it difficult for those who do not belong to a specific culture or region, but at the same time brings more kinship for those who do. (Therefore, I don’t particularly identify it as a flaw but do see specific pros and cons that the director may consider in mind when deciding the amount of background context required for audience)

I personally conjected that the context in this play includes Anglo-American culture, British culture, European history, and possibly Catholic proverbs. And as I later found out through research(after watching), The Guardians described it as a “particularly Anglo-Saxon verbal and physical humour,” which does approve the fact that The National Theater decided to adopt diverse verbal feats and comedies rooted in the English-American and Old-English-speaking culture. (Example: the verbal lazzi between Francis, Rachel, and Stanley about diarrhea) Also, the directors of the show later mentioned that they tried to find a British style of theatre comparable to commedia through which to tell the story .

Another thing that made me grapple with the show was its expression of feminism(or, anti-feminism). Persoanlly evaluating and reflecting the show as a feminist, and also a women living the current 21st century, it was hard for me to unotice cruel jokes and male chauvinism atmosphere. And this was controversial as I thought about it, because one, there are characters who directly address anti-feminst behaviors(Dolly), and two, because the specifically setted time period was once a male-dominated society. However if I was to change or adjust the show slightly, I would like to extract unnecessary, anti-feminism and patriarchal lines. For example, although Dolly was portrayed as smart, keen and witty character, right after she addressed women’s rights movements she would also insist that she always wanted to be a “sex-object”, or that she likes being treated “femininly”. I personally found this disturbing — even quite insulting — from the fact that even the ‘smartest’ women were drawn to be longing for sexual objectification, which is what many women actually struggle about in real life. However, at the same time I did make an effort to consider the possibilities where I could have been interpreting the show’s display of feminism differently. For example, the 1960s and 70 was a new wave of feminism, and I understand that there was a specific time period where it was very revolutionary for women to come display themselves as sexual icons. Likewise, historical feminism movements include the act of wearing a miniskirt, of women being “sexy” and free. Therefore I do personally wonder about the true intentions behind the scripts.