Review – Twelfth Night, Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 1st August 2015

Twelfth NightWhat a crowd descended on Oxford last Saturday night! Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by not only Lady Duncansby and Sir William (her butler), and the Duchess of Dallington, but also Lady Lichfield and her daughter the ex-Duchess of Dudley who’s relinquished her title due to the fact that she has ideas above her station (apparently her station is Knightsbridge, not Smethwick Galton Bridge). Even our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra together with their Mum and Dad were there. Where’s Hello magazine paparazzi when you need them?

Gypsy CaravanI’m beginning to lose track of the number of Twelfth Nights we’ve seen recently. There was the English Repertory Theatre at Oxford Castle last year, where all the cast were sick and Sir Andrew Aguecheek had only been in the role for a day and so read from the book; there was Filter Theatre’s Rock concert version, 90 minutes and no interval; and there was the RSC’s more traditional production with Richard Wilson immaculately cross-garter’d and a genuinely funny Feste. Even the Oxford Shakespeare Company, whose Twelfth Night we were watching (hope you’re keeping up) had previously presented the play in 2008, in a very funny and camp production where Malvolio (James Lavender in the same role that he plays in this production) ended up wearing little more than a thong.

David AlwynFor some reason, this current production, directed by Nicholas Green, seems to be played a little less for laughs, and a little more on the brooding side. Maybe it’s the gypsy folk music that is scattered throughout the play that somehow – for me, at least – brings the energy of the show down a bit. Orsino’s requirement that the food of love keeps on playing is an invitation to the cast to let loose on a very moody concoction of instruments that never, to my relatively ignorant ears, quite seem to be properly in tune. I enjoyed the melody and structure of “the rain it raineth every day”, but I felt the other songs were a little, well, drab. It was almost as though the jollity allowance had been rationed in some kind of arts funding governmental austerity measure.

Alice ColesWe also found the play a little harder to follow than usual. Two or three of us, at least, didn’t understand the initial situation of the shipwreck and the apparent loss of Viola’s brother at sea; therefore an awful lot of the first half of the play made precious little sense to them at all. I was explaining to Secret Agent Code November in the interval that Viola was talking about the shipwreck with the sea captain in her first scene. “Oh, he was a sea captain,” she exclaimed, as I could visually imagine plot elements finally falling into place before her very eyes. For all its rough edges, last year’s Oxford Castle version did at least make the shipwreck very clear (by use of a paddling pool and lots of immersion). This OSC production is strictly dry land only.

William FindleyThere was another unfortunate element of confusion – of which I think Code November fell foul – in that the aformentioned James Lavender (playing Malvolio and assorted sea captains) and Robert Madeley (playing Feste and an officer) physically resemble each other, even to the extent of having the same coloured beard. In a production like this you expect cast members to double up roles anyway, but that made it doubly difficult to follow at first. Mrs C told me later she was able to work out which was which because one had a close-cropped beard, and the other was more free-flowing. But it wasn’t very helpful to have this confusion early on. It definitely resulted in some sacrifice of clarity in getting the story across.

Marie FortuneIt sounds as though I didn’t really enjoy it, doesn’t it? But I assure you I did. It’s always a delight to be sat in the gardens of Wadham College, with friends and family, post-picnic, enjoying open-air Shakespeare. It’s one of life’s little luxuries. And there were plenty of entertaining scenes and performances to relish. James Lavender’s Malvolio is a very believable study in pompous officialdom, primly checking his laptop, suffering no fools (how ironic is that), but swiftly losing his inhibitions when he believes Olivia fancies him. In this production, Malvolio’s “letter scene” is a superb piece of comedy, with Feste, Belch and Aguecheek by turns hiding and observing behind the gypsy caravan with great physical comic timing. Malvolio’s suppliers of cross-garters turned out to be from the S&M department at Ann Summers; who knew? I’m always struck just how cruel the characters are to Malvolio – yes, he’s a silly ass and probably deserves taking down a peg or two, Robert Madeleybut his humiliation is abject and complete, and then to be chucked in prison for further deprivation really is cruelty piled on cruelty. By the way, the prison scenes were staged brilliantly, with Mr Lavender’s mouth simply appearing through holes in anonymous black plastic sheeting – it reminded me of the opening sequence of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Credit to Mr Lavender, he held the commitment to Malvolio’s character all the way through, and his final protestations to Olivia and rancour against his taunters were full of dignity and quiet revenge. I’m completely on Malvolio’s side on this one. The others seem to get away with it scot-free. Mr Lavender gives an enormous boost to any open air Shakespeare. We saw him four years ago in the OSC’s Comedy of Errors and he stole every scene.

George HaynesI really liked Alice Coles as Viola; for the most part in Twelfth Night you only see her as Cesario, and a most impishly fetching young knave she made – definitely the prototype for Blackadder II’s Bob. Great acting with her eyes when she suspects she’s going to be found out; and her loving relief at having met Sebastian again was really quite touching. That was the other stand-out scene; at the end where all the true identities are revealed and the relationships that have developed just need a little re-focussing to get back to where they were before. The Secret Agent was hooting in delight at that scene. Molly Roberts was also excellent as Olivia, imperiously out of humour should anyone dare to knock at her door but subsequently girlishly excited at falling in love with Cesario. And I also really enjoyed the performance of Marie Fortune in a number of roles but primarily as Maria, where she really got to grips with the character’s earthy humour and sexually forward behaviour.

James LavenderSome of the men’s roles were played in a style very different from how they are normally portrayed. For instance, George Haynes was entertaining as a slightly less-foppish-than-usual Aguecheek, but still nicely conveying his timidity in conflict and ineffectuality in everything else. Similarly, William Findley’s Sir Toby was less gross than usual, coming across as a rather friendly drunk with a touch of Irish charm rather than the larger-than-life grotesque that you sometimes see on stage. Orsino is traditionally quite noble and courtly, whereas OSC favourite David Alwyn (third year in a row for him here) portrayed him as something of a hippy wanderer, his bare chest besmirched by the elements in a way not usually seen in Illyria. I know his appearance encouraged at least two female members of our party to try to read the tattoo only just concealed by his waistband. Feste can be played either jokily or sombrely and Robert Madeley went for the darker end of the spectrum. As a result you might equate him more like Lear’s wise fool that sees the truth than a traditional court jester. Mr Madeley’s voice was sometimes a little soft in comparison to the rest of the cast, and, as the lead singer whenever they did group numbers, it meant that his voice tended to become outshone by the instruments.

Molly RobertsSo it was a good production from the OSC but perhaps not one of their greatest. Nevertheless, everyone had a wonderful time and we’re always happy to keep coming back. Memories of their spooky Macbeth, petulantly mannered Earnest, and simply hilarious Merry Wives (2005 version) guarantee our annual return!

Review – As You Like It, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Gardens, Oxford, 12th July 2014

As You Like It 1978I’ve always liked As You Like It – but I hadn’t seen a production of it for many a long year. In fact, the only other time I’ve seen it performed by a professional cast was way, way back – the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre, on 7th September 1978, when my “2nd circle” ticket (don’t suppose I was happy about sitting that far away from the stage) cost a full £2. It featured such fantastic performers as Charlotte Cornwell as Rosalind, Cherie Lunghi as Celia, Charles Dance as Oliver, and the wonderful (and sadly never seen in the UK any more) Jane Carr as Phoebe; but the stand-out performance for me was Alan David as Touchstone. He made him really sneery; patronising the country rustics around him, and probably even more morose than Jaques.

As You Like ItSo it’s amazing to think it’s taken 36 years to see it again! And it was well worth the wait. For anyone new to the Oxford Shakespeare Company – where have you been the last ten years? You’ve missed some extraordinary shows. Set in the gardens of Wadham College Oxford, with your picnic and glass of Pimm’s, watching innovative and frequently hilarious productions of Shakespeare favourites (although not exclusively – their Importance of Being Earnest was about as good as it gets), it’s a huge privilege to return every year, and we always set aside two or three Saturdays in the summer in the hope that at least one of them will be warm and sunny – as indeed it was last Saturday afternoon.

Rosalind and CeliaAs You Like It is one of those Shakespeare comedies where tragedy and division lead to happiness and unity, resolved by one of those classic “let’s all eight of us get married” endings. The route to marriage includes having a girl dressed as a boy, being wooed by a boy as though she were a girl even though he thinks he’s a boy (but she is a boy of course – confused yet?) Given that in Shakespeare’s day there’d have been no women on stage anyway, just try and count the number of in-jokes he’s setting up. To add to this, we have an actor playing Audrey – and yes, I’d have to admit she wouldn’t be my type; and an actress playing Oliver Martext and Le Beau, although this time they are actually transformed into the female characters Olivia Martext and La Belle. I did wonder with a name like that if she was going to break into a funky rendition of Lady Marmalade – but no, obviously it was considered too out of character. You’ve also got brother set against brother – twice; and a choice of sideline commentators such as the rustic Corin or the ex-courtier Jaques. Indeed, all human life is there.

Ganymede's after OrlandoThe first twenty five minutes or so are played in one part of the garden, where we all sat on rugs and watched the events unfold in the usurper Duke Frederick’s court; and once he has banished Rosalind (and Celia goes along for the ride) we up sticks and move to the seated “stage” area (having of course already bags’d one’s seats on arrival) to watch the story continue in the Forest of Arden. This two locations game works really well and gives you the audience a real sense of change of location, which is handy in a production where so many roles are doubled (or indeed trebled) up, as you can associate different roles with different stage areas. Entering the forest was accompanied by a change in costume styles too, those beautiful and handsome clothes worn at court being replaced by anything from rags to a bad day at H&M. Actually, all the costumes are brilliant throughout. Mrs Chrisparkle and I particularly relished Celia’s transformation from elegant ballroom dress, all sash and plunging neckline, to bumpkin floral shift and hippy wellies.

JaquesAs it’s an Oxford Shakespeare Company production, it’s played for laughs wherever possible, but this isn’t as LOL as some of their recent shows – it just isn’t That Sort Of Play. You can’t laugh at Jaques in the way you can at Malvolio. You haven’t got partner-swapping like you have in Midsummer Night’s Dream. There isn’t a whole heap of double-crossing going on like in Merry Wives. It’s much more character driven, and the harsh realities of life seem a little more ominous in this play. Nevertheless, Rebecca Tanwen and Charlotte Hamblin as Rosalind and Celia make a terrific comic double act, both of them entranced with their own love-at-first-sight to the hilarious disdain of the other, expressing a host of emotions with very funny facial expressions. The light heartedness when Rosalind falls for Orlando makes an excellent, grim contrast to the imminent sudden chill when David Shelley’s Duke Frederick hears about Orlando’s heritage; a superb change of atmosphere brought about by Mr Shelley’s authoritative performance.

Ganymede and PhoebeI also enjoyed how they played with the pronunciation of “Rosalind”, specifically that difficult last syllable. My Oxford tutor (yes, I used to have one of those) always used to say on this subject, and regarding this play: “I do not find it in my mind to say wind, I find it in my mind to say wind”. Personally, I never thought that was particularly helpful. Perhaps I should explain that for the first part of that sentence you use a short “i” and for the second, a long “i”. No, I agree, I still don’t think it helps. Clearly mispronunciation of find, mind, and wind, not to mention Rosalind, had them rolling in the aisles four hundred years ago.

SilviusIf I do have a criticism of the production, it would be that some of the cuts are a little unfortunate. One of my favourite speeches in the play, Touchstone’s analysis of rhetoric, with the Retort Courteous, the Quip Modest and the Reply Churlish, and how peace can reign with sensible use of “if”, is missing. “Your If is the only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, says Touchstone, identifying the theme of compromise in the play. I think that was a missed opportunity. Of course, there have to be cuts, otherwise having eight actors play upwards of twenty-five people is never going to work. We lost some characters; Madame La Belle delivered some of the lines originally spoken by Charles the wrestler; Jaques missed out on gathering people round and saying “Tis a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle” and a few other scenes were shifted around. Old retainer Adam accompanying Orlando on his journey to the forest takes place during the court scenes in this production, rather than later on in Arden as Shakespeare had it; and actually that change works very well. But then, if you objected to these changes because you’re that much of a Shakespeare purist, an Oxford garden production possibly might not be for you.

Jaques and Duke SeniorNot only do the cast exhibit boundless energy, but they also have a great sensitivity to, and understanding of the motivations and personalities of the characters. For example, the shocked, grieved reaction by Rebecca Tanwen’s Rosalind at her treatment by the Duke her uncle is tangible and very moving. Later on, she really gets into the part of Ganymede – truly the blueprint for Blackadder’s “Bob” – and becomes a very fetching tomboy; no wonder Orlando goes along with the wooing game. Charlotte Hamblin expresses all Celia’s qualities of honour and loyalty as she sticks with Rosalind through the banishment, and then gives us a marvellous long-suffering act of a fish out of water, as she pretends to be Aliena, adopting a “don’t you know who I am” tone on arrival in the forest, then putting up with Ganymede’s impetuosities, and playing a splendidly irritated second fiddle until Oliver arrives on the scene.

OrlandoDavid Alwyn (excellent here last year in The Merry Wives of Windsor, sadly no puppets for him to play with this year) puts in another superb performance as Orlando, the thoroughly decent, honest and much wronged younger brother of the selfish and power-hungry Oliver. He gives a great impression of a soppy lovelorn when pining for his beloved Rosa-Rosa-Rosa-Rosa-Rosalind (you’ll have to see the show to get that joke), but also brings out Orlando’s heroic nature very successfully, with his magnanimity in wrestling victory and his generous behaviour toward the frail servant. Completing the courtly foursome is Alexander McWilliam (also an OSC stalwart, with his hilarious interpretation of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream two years ago) playing three roles, although it feels like four characters; Audreyportraying the early Oliver as a brutal bully with a heart of ice who then transforms into the later Oliver bearing the cheeriest of smiles and bravely going weak-at-the-knees at the sight of Celia. He’s also Charles the wrestler (clearly putting in extra time at the gym) and, most significantly, the enigmatic character of Jaques. My memory of Emrys James’ performance as Jaques in that 1978 RSC production is that he was totally grumpy and bad tempered throughout. Mr McWilliam’s performance is superbly subtle – the text describes the character as melancholy and that’s precisely how he comes across: reserved, reflective, world-weary but not bitter, with an unsentimental grip on reality shown nowhere better than with the famous Seven Ages of Man speech. It’s a performance of so many facets that you simply can’t categorise it. With a role that’s easy to caricature, this Jaques is a real, complex person.

Rosalind to be wedDavid Shelley is very convincing as both Dukes, the usurper at court and the genuine one in the forest, where he is a generous and jovial sort, dispensing wisdom and shelter where it’s needed; and he’s also a very entertaining, if slightly eccentric, old shepherd Corin. George Haynes plays Silvius as a charmless teenager – Shakespeare missed a trick by not thinking of “whatever” as a retort; he’s also delightful – I think that’s the word – as the simpering but not to be underestimated Audrey, who I would guess will have many surprises for Touchstone on their wedding night. There’s a terrific performance by Rosalind Steele, first as Madame La Belle who forcefully reminded me of the young Penelope Keith, and then as the rather scary Phoebe, wanting no dalliance with the useless Silvius and lolloping in love after Ganymede, but portraying genuine heartache when she discovers that there really could never be a future for the two of them. And Rob Witcomb (yet a third OSC alumnus, a brilliant Doctor Caius in Merry Wives) gives us a very sophisticated and intelligent Touchstone – not that that stops him from being ravaged with lipstick kisses, of course – and a sad and moving portrayal of the seventh age of man in the form of Adam.Celia to be wed

Add to all that music, dancing, letters in trees, wrestling, and a real live barbecue, and you’ve got another great OSC show. It’s on until the 15th August and I unhesitatingly recommend it to you!

P. S. I had to adopt my grumpy tone with a few French students (I presume they were students) constantly muttering away throughout the whole play. Sing little birdiesThe first glance didn’t shut them up, nor did the second; and the third, my usually successful “lingering look” barely registered. So I was forced to turn round and say “will you be quiet please”, and they looked at me as if I was spoiling the play for them. They stayed quiet for about three minutes. I can only presume that one was translating for the others as the play progressed. “Qu’est-ce que c’est? Une femme habillée comme un homme? Nom d’un nom d’un nom! Sacré Bleu! Et maintenant? Un homme habillé comme une femme? Oh mon Dieu! Boff, des Anglais….”

The splendid photographs of the production are by Ben Galpin of Malvolio Media.

Review – The Merry Wives of Windsor, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 1st August 2013

Merry Wives of WindsorWadham College gardens on a hot summer’s evening; what could be lovelier. A picnic of crisps, salad, fruit and exquisite nutty biscuits; a bottle of Tesco’s Simply Muscadet (weird to think they only charged me £2.51 for it), and front row seats for this year’s Oxford Shakespeare Company production, those Merry Wives of Windsor. It was actually this play that got us interested in the OSC eight years ago. We knew nothing about the company and just bought tickets on spec; and were immediately hooked. It was one of the funniest shows we’ve ever seen, and to this day Mrs Chrisparkle and I will hoot with laughter if we recall to mind Doctor Caius and his cuddly Fishy. You had to be there.

Sarah Goddard and Katharine Bennett-FoxMerry Wives is one of those plays that’s hardly ever studied, because Shakespeare rattled it off in a couple weeks to please the Queen who wanted to see Falstaff in love. As a result it contains little of his usual beautiful language, intense concepts and character insights; instead it’s pure sitcom. Consequently it’s one of the easiest of Shakespeare’s plays to mess around, change the text and do what you want with it, and no purist is going to give a damn; and that’s one of the OSC’s strengths – they are brilliant at reinventing comedies and redefining characters in new locations and times.

David AlwynThis Merry Wives takes place at the annual Windsor fete. This must be the apocryphal fete worse than death, with squabbling families, randy publicans, wayward yoof and shameless gossip. When I tell you it has musical interludes that include the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon and Space’s Female of the Species, you’ll realise that nothing is being taken too seriously here. Basically, Sir John Falstaff gets it in his head that he would fancy a sexual dalliance with both Mistresses Ford and Page, so gets his minions to deliver identical love letters to both – schoolboy error there, I’d say – and, appalled by the prospect of a little how’s your father with that revolting gutbucket, the ladies plan their counter-attack, which includes Mistress Ford shaking up her husband a bit as well. When all the plotting is uncovered, almost everyone in the story decides to go in for the kill on Falstaff, making him feel as much of an idiot as possible, with a final humiliating revenge. Whilst all this is happening the unsuitable suitors of Mistress Anne Page take their eye off the ball and she instead gets hitched to dashing gent Fenton; and it all ends happily ever after.

IMG_3227It’s always a delight to see the imagination and commitment of the OSC’s creative team – Gemma Fairlie’s direction and the incredibly talented cast, and the extraordinary amount of effort they put in to make each production a success. This one is no different. Justice Shallow here is a Punch and Judy man, and his cousin Slender is – you guessed it – a puppet, and David Alwyn’s performance as both characters is both funny and immensely skilful. However, the first few scenes are stolen by the appearance of “Panda” – surprisingly absent from Shakespeare’s Folio – a superb example of an OSC liberty-taking that works so well. If they weren’t enough roles for Mr Alwyn he also appears as the suave-and-he-knows-it Fenton, who wouldn’t look out of place in “Made in Chelsea”. More TV references to follow.

David McKechnieMistress Ford and Mistress Page are a great double act and are portrayed here as quite unlikely pals, which adds to the fun. Sarah Goddard’s Mistress Page is a hearty green-wellie brigade member, with a headscarf that makes her look like the Queen off-duty in Balmoral and a booming stage whisper when she’s abetting Mistress Ford trick Falstaff. Katharine Bennett-Fox makes Mistress Ford a pretty posh and well-to-do young thing, who summons her staff with a bell (but so nicely and refinedly); and later becomes a seething mass of vengefulness, cloaked in Fondant Fancies. Aspects of her character reminded me strongly of Miranda Richardson as Queenie in Blackadder II. This being a typical OSC production, everyone doubles up with roles, so they also take the parts of Falstaff’s street ruffians Pistol and Nym, with graffiti on their trousers and a fine line in “innit” conversation. The contrast between the characters only serves to increase the humour.

Rob WitcombHeather Johnson is a great Mistress Quickly, very much the Everyman (Everywoman?) character, a servant to many masters and a gossiper about them all. She has a wonderful connection with the audience, and occasionally put me in mind of Matt Lucas as one of many Little Britain characters. David McKechnie is a marvellously supercilious Ford, with no time for anything but himself until his wife reigns him in; a totally incongruous American cowboy Master Brook (Ford in disguise, hope you’re keeping up), and a delightfully meddling Parson Hugh Evans. Rob Witcomb is both the Archers-theme whistling landowner Page, reminiscent of the Fast Show’s Ralph, if you remember that; and a completely hilarious fey Doctor Caius, all fluttering hands and destroyer of language. Rachel WaringIn the performance we saw, there was one superb awry moment where Doctor Caius became detached from his wig after a pratfall; Mr McKechnie re-wigged him beautifully and Mr Alwyn corpsed for the rest of the scene. Rachel Waring made a bewitching Mistress Anne Page and she and Fenton are going to have beautiful babies together. As Falstaff’s messenger Robin, she reminded me of the girl-dressed-as-a-boy servant Bob in Blackadder II. Right, no more TV references.

Jack TaylorThe only actor who doesn’t double up – and rightly so – is Jack Taylor who gives a tremendously funny and physical performance as Falstaff; lecherous and disgusting but never over the top, he has a superb stage presence and by rights really ought to be a jolly butcher in a farm shop – he has that look. Convincing throughout, and bringing joy to the stage with every appearance, I have to highlight the brief scene where he is felled by Doctor Caius and Parson Evans in slow motion; it’s physical comic genius. A very full audience absolutely loved the production and gave it huge cheers at the end. The last performance is on 16th August – you should definitely catch it if you can. A worthy addition to the OSC’s oeuvre!