Mrs Chrisparkle and I were delighted to receive an invitation to attend the Press Night for the new production of Twelfth Night at the Oxford Castle, performed by the English Repertory Theatre company. When I were a mere lad scraping a degree at the nearby university, Oxford Castle was decrepit. A no-go zone, all locked up, probably the home to nefarious footpads and vagabonds – or so we fantasised at the time. A few years ago we dropped by and saw how it had been glammed up, all bars and restaurants and beautiful people. But somehow we never think to go there if we want a meal in Oxford. Probably because it was off my radar as a student, as a location it’s yet to re-establish itself in my heart.
But it really is a welcoming complex, full of happy people, eating and drinking in the warm summer sunshine of an early evening, with interesting attractions (Oxford Castle Unlocked looks fun) and, of course, the promise of open air Shakespeare. Evening performances of Twelfth Night take place in the Castle Yard, a courtyard with views towards the castle mound, and the action takes place on stone steps leading up, pyramid-like, to a small stage area at the top. It also includes the gated access to the mound, which has a useful path running along the side edge of the top stage area, and (presumably at the back, out of the audience’s view) a path that leads up to the top of the mound. At the foot of the pyramid is what can only be described as a long, narrow, oblong paddling pool, about a yard away from the front row seats. There’s an awful lot of water in this production – and the warning is that if you sit in the front row you possibly/probably will get wet. Not really fancying two and a half hours of shivering in slowly drying clothes, I suggested seats three or four rows back for Mrs C and me. “Nonsense”, she replied, “I don’t mind getting a little bit wet!” We’d been advised that there’s less chance of splashing the further right you sit, so we took the two front row seats that were furthest to the right of the stage. We didn’t get wet. However, we did get blinded by the lights that illuminate the paddling pool in the second act. I have to say, depending where the action was, that made it very difficult to look at the stage area at times. Can we suggest the lights are tilted down and away a little? Otherwise it provides a distancing effect of which Brecht would have been proud.
The occasional use of the castle mound as an acting area was very nicely done, with the audience having distant views of Orsino and Cesario larking around at the top, and also an exasperated Malvolio looking down (in more than one way) on the infantile proceedings below. Unfortunately there is clearly public access to the top of the mound from the other side, and a couple of times there were people at the top looking down at us with curiosity, including some (presumably inebriated) youths who bellowed out “oooh look it’s a PLAY” which rather shattered the Illyrian illusion. It’s also a shame that, in order to get into their starting positions at the beginning of the play and after the interval that you have to watch the cast filing out of their dressing rooms. Those not first appearing on the top area then have to walk across the stage, jump over a little wall (more of which later) and hide behind a garish beach windbreak thing so that they may enter Stage Left. As you’ve already seen them crossing in front of you, any amusement factor in their appearance (costume, props etc) is therefore lessened when they actually come on stage.
The play starts with quite a coup de theatre, going straight into Act One Scene Two (sharp intakes of breath from Shakespeare purists), with a very graphic depiction of Viola and Sebastian’s shipwrecking, using the paddling pool to full effect (and thus getting some members of the audience pretty wet from the word go). Sebastian and Antonio are virtually immersed in the ocean waves, and then spend the next twenty odd minutes by the side of the stage attempting to recover from their ordeal, whilst towels, apples and TLC are administered. It provides a very physical portrayal of near drowning. Meanwhile, Viola learns about Orsino from the priest(ess), who actually stands in for a number of the minor characters who have been cut from this version. It’s only then that Orsino gets to talk about music being the food of love. You could argue that switching the order of these two opening scenes gives Viola an added prominence; however I suspect the main reason is that they were extremely proud of their paddling pool idea and wanted it to have the biggest impact.
I was somewhat confused by the production’s overall vision of the play; its time setting for instance. The music playing whilst we wait for curtain up is all sea shanties from (I guess) the 19th century, although the cue for it to start is the piece of music everyone will recognise as the theme to Captain Pugwash. So you’re really in a nautical mood. But this isn’t The Tempest and actually the shipwreck is only a device to separate the twins so that Shakespeare can pen some Plautine mistaken identity material. And then, location; after that first scene, you could really be anywhere. Union Jacks abound, so I presume this Illyria is in the UK. When Feste sings, he has a penchant for Sinatra and Gershwin. When Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste observe Malvolio being duped by Maria’s letter, they’re dressed as Mexican gardeners – migrant workers I presume. I’m sure it’s a deliberate mish-mash of times and places, but I wonder if more of a unified theme running through it might have made the storyline a little clearer. I’m very familiar with the play but I still got lost occasionally with the plot.
A major problem with the setting is that, certainly from where we were sitting, when the actors have their backs to you, you can barely hear what they are saying at all. This was particularly noticeable with a few of the actors whose voices are perhaps not as strong as the others. Plus you get extraneous noise from outside the Castle Yard area; unsurprisingly with all the bars and restaurants a stone’s throw away. At one point it sounded like all the beer glasses had been collected from all the bars and were being trundled past on a hospital trolley. On the stone slab flooring, high heel shoes make a particularly brutal sound when nipping off to the ladies’ during the show. And when a trumpet practice started up from the windows of some neighbouring student accommodation (we presumed), we seriously wondered if this venue, atmospheric though it looks, is actually really suitable for open air performance.
Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy in this show, and there were several very successful scenes. Malvolio’s letter scene worked a treat, assisted by the onlooking cast giggling at the success of their duplicitous trick – actually it was funnier than the cross-garter’d scene (or maybe that was just because it was too painful to watch with those glaring lights in our eyes). I also really enjoyed the scene where Antonio is heartbroken because he thinks Sebastian has turned his back on him over the money he gave him (whereas of course, he’s talking to Viola/Cesario by mistake) – you really felt Antonio’s devastation at the perceived disloyalty. Before the play began, Jack Taylor, who plays Sir Toby, came out to explain to us that the cast have been beset with some accidents, including Alexander Jonas, due to play Sir Andrew, who was suffering from amnesia following an accident, so Mr Ben Waring had come up to Oxford that morning and had basically done his best to learn the entire part in a day. Understandably, he would have to have the book in his hand; but actually it was remarkably unobtrusive and Mr Waring did a terrific job. Mr Taylor himself had approached the stage on crutches so I don’t know what injury he had sustained. He certainly was a crowning example for the “show must go on” syndrome. It wouldn’t surprise me if that wall they have to jump over hadn’t claimed a few casualties. Maria thwacked her leg into it in her first exit of the evening, which left Mrs C and me wincing.
There were two particularly superb performances. Rachel Waring as Viola was strong and clear, and managed to get all the humour out of the girl-dressed-as-a-boy routine, both whilst fending off the amorous Olivia and beginning to fancy Orsino. She is a very watchable actress as we remembered from her performance in the OSC’s The Merry Wives of Windsor last year (in which Jack Taylor was an excellent Falstaff). Daniel Jennings as both Feste and Antonio was also brilliant, making the clown funny (not always easy in Shakespeare) and genuinely touching as Sebastian’s rescuer. He’s obviously great at voices – I loved his interpretation of Sir Topas.
I also very much enjoyed Steven Blacker’s performance as Malvolio; he’s very good at the pompous and patronising aspects of Olivia’s steward, and his smiling was distinctly eerie. I always feel sorry for Malvolio when he’s locked up as a lunatic and think that Olivia lets the rest of her household off far too easily for the wrong that’s been done to him. I found his being teased in the paddling pool really very disturbing – I guess it’s an individual reaction as to whether you find this scene funny or not. For me it was painful to watch, as I felt it depicted real cruelty. Mr Blacker did a very good job of making you feel uncomfortable and guilty at having watched it. David William Bryan was an excellent Orsino, with a natural sense of authority but also really well conveying the playfulness of his relationship with Cesario. He also did the best gesture of the night, when Cesario implies that Olivia simply won’t find him attractive – his hands said “what, with this body?”, like an upper class version of The Fonz.
Nina Bright made a rather cute priest, playing the role subtly, with amusing nuances and some inventive interaction with the other characters; and Katharine Mangold was a beguiling Maria, clearly the catalyst for much of the boys’ bad behaviour and really proud of her mischief making. Aneurin Pascoe’s Sebastian suffered a bit from being one of the less strong voices and I couldn’t hear a lot of what he said at times, although he looked the part and definitely came across as distinguished nobility having a hard time. Annemarie Highmore’s Olivia was also frequently too quiet and a little too laid-back in the role for my liking – although she did come to life when overcome with passion for Cesario. It’s hard to criticise Jack Taylor’s Sir Toby when he was clearly in pain but I confess I didn’t really get an insight into the character from his performance – he just came across as far too polite, which is not what you expect from a member of the Belch family. Ben Waring’s Sir Andrew was remarkably good given the circumstances – if he keeps with the role he will be great.
So, all in all, I’d say it was a typical Curate’s Egg of a show. It’s on at the Oxford Castle until 5th September, and I’m sure once it beds in – and the overall fitness of the cast improves – it will be a very entertaining production.