Nederlands Dans Theater 1 – Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, 5th April 2008
Always a pleasure to see any of the NDT dance companies – and this was a tour by their Number One group, comprising of Jiri Kylian’s Wings of Wax, followed by Lightfoot Leon’s Signing Off, and finishing with Kylian’s Tar and Feathers. This would be the last time (to date) that we have seen NDT1 – let’s hope it’s not for ever!
James Son of James – Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 11th April 2008
This was a fun and inventive show from the now defunct Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, full of anarchy and lunacy but tremendously exciting theatre from a hugely talented group of dancers. Really enjoyed it.
Billy Elliot The Musical – Victoria Palace Theatre, London, 3rd May 2008
An unpopular opinion here, but I think the stage version of Billy Elliot is vastly inferior to the original film. Superbly staged and performed, of course, but for some reason we just didn’t connect with our Billy – I don’t know which actor it was who played it on our performance, (although I know it wasn’t young Layton Williams, I would have remembered him) and I just felt rather let down by the whole thing.
Doctor Dolittle – Birmingham Hippodrome, 11th May 2008
We took our nieces to see this show, starring Tommy Steele and with all the old familiar Leslie Bricusse songs from the original film. One of those productions that I’m sure was perfectly good but I cannot for the life of me remember anything about it – not even going to see it in the first place. I must be getting old.
The Good Soul of Szechuan – Young Vic, London, 17th May 2008
We’d heard excellent things about this new production by Richard Jones of Brecht’s Good Woman of Szechuan – and those excellent things were correct! An excellent translation by David Harrower, with a fantastic central performance by Jane Horrocks, with great support from the likes of Liza Sadovy and John Marquez. Enjoyed it enormously!
The Cherry Orchard – Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th June 2008
Philip Franks directed this new version of Chekhov’s classic by Mike Poulton, and there were fantastic performances from a plethora of brilliant actors. Diana Rigg played Ranyevskaya, with Michael Siberry as Lopakhin, Natalie Cassidy as Dunyasha, William Gaunt as Gayev, Jemma Redgrave as Varya, John Nettleton as Simeonov-Pishchik, Maureen Lipman as Charlotta Ivanovna, and Frank Finlay as Firs, in what was I believe his final stage appearance. Immaculate and superb.
Hairspray – Shaftesbury Theatre, London, 28th June 2008
The original London production had already been running for a good nine months before we finally got around to seeing it – and it was a total delight from start to finish. Michael Ball was Edna and Ian Talbot was Wilbur, with the brilliant Leanne Jones as Tracy, the excellent Ben James-Ellis as Link, and the fabulous Tracie Bennett as Velma. Many great stars of the future lurk further down the cast list, including Adrian Hansel as Seaweed, Sandra Marvin as Lorraine, and Michael Vinsen as Brad. The show’s popularity has never gone away, and why would it?
Sail Away – Lost Musicals at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, 6th July 2008
Another of Ian Marshall Fisher’s fantastic rejuvenations of an old lost show, Noel Coward’s 1961 show is set in New York City, and this production included many of the Lost Musicals favourite performers, including James Vaughan, Stewart Permutt, Ursula Smith and Vivienne Martin.
Twelfth Night – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College Gardens, Oxford, 12th July 2008
Bill Bankes-Jones’ hilarious production of Twelfth Night was perfect in the gardens of Wadham College, with brilliant performances throughout, although James Lavender’s Malvolio in particular was a superb mix of ridicule and despair.
Eurobeat The Musical – Milton Keynes Theatre, 18th July 2008
The first of three times that we saw this particular version of Eurobeat – which is without question the original and best. Wonderfully funny presentation from Les Dennis and Mel Giedroyc, and ten fantastic parody songs; the winner that night (and on the third time we saw it) was the KGBoyz with Ice Queen for Russia, but the second time (which was the London Press Night) it was Ronan Corr’s La La La for Ireland, which remains my favourite song from this selection. A tremendous spoof, done with real heart and incredibly funny.
Twelfth Night is one of those true, perennial crowd pleasers. It lends itself so well to modern reinvention, in new settings and new eras, and when you’ve got a central comedic role like Malvolio it’s a gift for a grumpy comic actor to breathe new life into it. It has songs – so you can make as much or as little of them as you want; it has a girl dressed as a boy making up to another girl on behalf of another boy (that’s bound to lead to trouble); it has drunks and idiots; it has separated twins who dress alike even though they haven’t seen each other for ages; it even has a Fool. If you were to cut up little pieces of all the Shakespeare plays throw them up in the air and then try to put all the most typical aspects back together into one play, you’d come up with Twelfth Night.
Christopher Luscombe’s new production draws inspiration from the late Victorian era. Orsino’s Illyria is a Wildean, Swinburnean palace of decadence, where the Duke paints pictures of pretty young men with few clothes on and despite his protestations of love for his countess seems naturally more attracted to fellas. As a result, the whole Viola/Cesario setup takes on a greater significance. When Viola as Cesario is telling the entranced Duke about how she/he plans to return to Olivia to woo her even more, the Duke gets closer and closer to Cesario until he can’t resist but plant a big sloppy kiss on his/her lips, much to Cesario’s (and ours) dumbstruck surprise. Oh those Illyrians.
In more Victorian design, the garden at Olivia’s country estate backs on to a beautifully realised minor extension to the Temperate House at Kew Gardens; and Feste, her jester, here is cast as her munshi ( Victoria and Abdul has a lot to answer for). That reassessment of the role of Feste absolutely makes sense in this setting. Shipwrecked foreigners Viola and Sebastian have clearly travelled from the East Indies or thereabout, with their stunning Maharajan robes looking strangely none the worse for their experience. Britain in the late 19th century was fascinated by all things oriental; it affected their costumes, their designs, their artefacts, even their drugs. Simon Higlett’s magnificent sets and costumes capture both the spirit of that fascination and the general sense of Victorian England, with the train station, garden statuary, Orsino’s studio and so on. I loved the use of the old-fashioned Polyphon player to provide Feste his backing tracks – a really nice touch.
As seems to be on trend at the moment, we opened with Viola’s arrival, off the shipwreck, for the first scene and then went to Orsino’s studio for his music be the food of love scene, rather than the other way around, as Shakespeare had it. Which among us is going to tell Shakespeare he got it wrong? This way round is much better; it somehow allows for a greater understanding of the characters and the opening scenario if we meet the earnest Viola first and then move on to the louche Orsino.
As in virtually every Shakespearean production nowadays there are a few tinkerings with the script or characterisations; and they are all successful and constructive – apart from just one aspect, in my humble opinion. There’s a lot of incidental music; and nine times out of ten it’s either too loud, or the actors’ amplification is too soft. Many speeches are drowned out by the music – Feste seemed to me to be the biggest casualty – and it’s simply too intrusive. On occasion it’s almost as though they’re trying to make it into a musical; that doesn’t work as there simply isn’t enough music to achieve that. Musically, it’s neither one thing nor the other and I was a little irritated at that imbalance. As usual, as Malvolio’s plight develops, we see him as more sinned against the sinning (yes, I know, different play), and Olivia’s final assessment that he has been most notoriously abus’d is quite right. However, this Twelfth Night is totally played for laughs, and the finale involves the whole cast singing all the songs again (really?) so any lingering sadness for Malvolio gets kicked into touch straight away. Maybe the production sacrifices a little of the play’s darker side so that it can end with one foot in the air going oi, oi, which isn’t necessarily for the best.
Where this production really does come into its own is with some superb performances and truly entertaining characterisations. Let’s start with Malvolio – Adrian Edmondson in that role sounds like a dream come true and will rightly encourage plenty of bums on seats. He’s wonderfully dour as the strict puritan steward, dishing out death stares to reprobates, straightening out the angle of a stationary teapot with pernickety accuracy; and his transformation into a yellow stocking’d, cross garter’d, grinning ninny is very funny and not remotely over the top.
I absolutely loved Kara Tointon as Olivia. Her girlish relish at her constant meetings with Cesario is a sheer joy; her facial expressions really share that sense of physical enjoyment! John Hodgkinson puts his height and his vocal power into a strong performance as Sir Toby Belch, making what can be a somewhat tedious character genuinely funny; farting noisily and uncontrollably as he leaves the stage. Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is another genuinely funny characterisation, collapsing through drink whenever it’s necessary, teetering across the stage in a discreet attempt to escape, mangling his words as he juggles dignity with debauchery. There’s a lovely scene where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Sarah Twomey’s gutsy scullery maid Fabia have to blend in with the broken statues in Olivia’s garden in order to hide from Malvolio. Simple physical comedy in many respects, but beautifully done.
Vivien Parry, last seen as the hilariously over-ambitious Mrs Walsingham in Half a Sixpence, brings a huge dollop of Welsh intrigue to the role of Maria; she couldn’t have been more dramatic (and indeed hilarious) in her account of how Malvolio has fallen for her trick – and it’s a really lovely reading of the part. Beruce Khan’s Feste is suitably mystic and exotic, combining the tradition Fool elements with a little touch of munshi magic. Dinita Gohil brings a natural dignity and nobility to the role of Viola; I really admired her clarity of diction with just that hint of Indian refinement that’s particularly pleasing to my ear. Esh Alladi’s Sebastian is a delightfully straightforward chap who can’t believe his luck with Olivia, and he exudes thorough decency whenever he’s on stage. Hats off to the casting department for uniting Mr Alladi and Ms Gohil in these two roles; with their similar heights and frames you really could believe they were twins. And there’s an excellent performance from Nicholas Bishop as Orsino, overflowing with artiness, always confusing the girl for the boy; a perfectly underplayed Victorian version of a Restoration fop.
The press night audience absolutely loved it, and it does fill the theatre with genuine contented vibes and a wonderful sense of good humour. I’d just like them to hold back on the musical intrusions a little; apart from that, what’s not to love?
P. S. Interesting to note from the programme how many of the cast of this show will also be appearing in the RSC’s A Christmas Carol, which opens next month; the two productions being played in repertoire until February. I’ll look forward to seeing that!
What 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?
I’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.
For 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.
We 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.
There 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.
It 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, but 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.
I 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.
Some 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.
So 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!
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.
Illyria? I think not. This is about as far away from a natural setting of Twelfth Night as you could possibly imagine. No palaces, no sea coasts, no woodland; instead the stage is set up for a rock concert. Guitars, keyboards, drums, speakers, overlapping wires and microphones, all set on a blank black stage. The stage manager is sat at her desk at the back in full view of the audience. The cast come on in dribs and drabs, drinking tea, chatting to themselves, sizing up the audience, offering us Werthers’ Originals (I am of an age where these are becoming de rigueur) and generally warming themselves up in very relaxed way.
As I said only last week I would much sooner see a brave failure of an experimental production rather than a lazy, easy success. We’ve seen Filter once before, a few years ago when they brought their Three Sisters to the Derngate. It was avant-garde, but for me not quite avant-garde enough, and it just didn’t stamp its mark on the play quite as strongly as I would have liked. Not so with Twelfth Night. This is a very, very wacky and way out approach to the play and, I have to say, we both enjoyed it immensely. It’s brave and experimental, and certainly not a failure. The only aspect which I feel doesn’t quite work is if the creative team were hoping you’d go home fully understanding the original Twelfth Night story. If you’ve not seen the play before I think you’d be confused by the doubling up of characters and not quite understanding the changing locations; if you are familiar with the play, that would also help you appreciate some of the extra little nuances they chuck in from time to time. Otherwise, it’s a palpable hit throughout.
It’s certainly not for purists though. About fifteen minutes in, an older gentleman got up from his seat and walked right across the front of the stage and through the exit in a very obvious “I’ve had enough of this rubbish” mood. He could have been a plant I guess – we saw that done once with DV8 Dance Company many years ago but that looked precisely like the plant it was. This gesture, with its resultant slightly surprised looks and comments from the cast, seemed pretty genuine to me. If you were going to see this production as a student of English literature, I’m not sure it would be hugely beneficial to you. If you were going to see it as a drama student, then you’d find it endlessly fascinating.
The cast all play their various instruments and operate computers with recorded sound throughout the show giving the impression that the music and sound effects arise organically out of the text rather than being an artificial accompaniment. A lot of the setting seems to be derived from Orsino’s first speech, “if music be the food of love, play on” (audience members might have to prompt him to remember it) as the Duke is trying to distinguish the white noise rubbish that’s invading his brain from the clear notes of melodic love that he’s also trying to locate. It’s a clever interpretation of that opening scene, and it works well.
Viola becomes Cesario by borrowing a jacket and a hat from members of the audience – which is a clever touch, because how else would the shipwrecked Viola conveniently come by men’s clothes? Toby Belch first enters uttering Hamlet’s soliloquy and staggering off in a drunken heap – possibly an Elizabethan equivalent of singing “Show me the way to go home.” Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s noisy revels are inventively portrayed with acrobatics, ball games with the audience, involving a member of the front row (me, actually) in singing their song, and passing pizza around the stalls. When Malvolio puritanically interrupts the revelry with his aghast “is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” he pointed speechlessly to three ladies sitting in the second row who were scoffing pizza, which really involved the audience in sharing the same guilt due to bad behaviour as Belch and Aguecheek; it was an extremely funny scene. There are loads more examples of inventive staging that I shan’t tell you about – you’ll have to go see the play.
The cast are first rate throughout. Jonathan Broadbent is a classy if music-mad Orsino and doubles up as the foppish but totally believable Andrew Aguecheek. Lizzy Watts is an authoritative Olivia, stiffly respectable and no-nonsense until she starts fancying Cesario, when traces of an amusingly suppressed ladette appear. Polly Frame does a very good job of differentiating Viola (and Cesario) from Sebastian, using a superb deep voice and nicely portraying the latter’s penchant for a punch-up. Sandy Foster is a brilliant Feste, as wise a fool as you could hope to meet; she comes across as a naturally funny person and you sense she is the gel that actually makes much of the production stick together. Geoffrey Lumb is a hilarious Sir Toby, not only because he looks just like Mrs Chrisparkle’s cousin Nick, who is himself in many ways a real life Sir Toby, but also for his superb attention to comic detail, immaculate facial expressions and a performance of total conviction. Fergus O’Donnell’s Malvolio is a brilliant creation – full of waspish bossiness at first, then when he thinks Olivia fancies him he gains rockstar status in his head, with some terrific air guitar work and louche body language; finally his total humiliation is capped by being imprisoned for alleged lunacy – it’s a great performance that really makes you feel sorry for the old steward.
At 90 minutes without an interval, and with long periods in silence or several repetitions of the same song, you can guess that they’ve trimmed a lot of the excess of the text away, removing a few characters and leaving the very bare structure of the plot. They’ve torn up the rule book on how to perform Shakespeare and I was very impressed with the way they all carried it off so well. But the basic story is still all there and you won’t be disappointed at the way they depict Olivia’s falling in love with Cesario and then Sebastian, Malvolio appearing cross-garter’d, Toby Belch being a drunken wreck, and much more besides. Anarchic, inventive but above all, huge fun, this is a great production that’s touring round the country and I would definitely recommend it!
We’d seen Twelfth Night a couple of years ago in the gardens of Wadham College Oxford, performed by the Oxford Shakespeare Company, who we try to see each year. They had an outrageous Malvolio. Very funny, very camp, and when he thought Olivia was in love with him he basically came on cross-gartered and wearing precious little else – a thong maybe.
I wasn’t expecting Richard Wilson’s Malvolio to wear just a thong, and I was right. His Malvolio’s cross-garters are the original yellow tights with garters criss-crossed over them. Very eye catching and unattractive. Along with the rest of his interpretation of the role, it was spot on. This Malvolio was pompous, not because he was sneery, but because he took his role as the head of Olivia’s household seriously. He is a serious, sombre, puritan person. After he has been tricked, he is a completely broken man. This Malvolio is more sinned against than sinning, and you come away from the production sorry for him and realising that the jolly jape against him was really rather cruel.
I particularly enjoyed Olivia’s (Alexandra Gilbreath) transformation from grieving sister to girlish glee as she fancies Cesario (Viola dressed as a boy). When she sees both Viola and Sebastian together, and she’s happy to fancy Sebastian instead, you realise that her ability to transfer her love from one person says something about how deep her love is; or isn’t. Jo Stone-Fewings’ Orsino, however, is perfectly happy to love Viola, even though he’s always thought of her as Cesario. Where he must have loved the personality, Olivia had loved the body. If Orsino and Olivia had got it together they probably would have disappointed each other.
Great production; inventive staging; programme notes affirm that Illyia is modern day Albania, and the set, costumes and scenes are full of Turkish and Central Asian motifs. Miltos Yerolemou as Feste actually makes you laugh – very hard for a Shakespearean clown. Personally I find the character of Sir Toby Belch an irritant; if I’d wanted Shakespearean puns and drunkenness I could have stayed as home. As it is, Richard McCabe made him very watchable; and James Fleet’s Aguecheek was decently ineffectually vain whilst remaining credible. An appreciative and well-behaved audience, they kept their whooping for the curtain call. What is it with whooping in the audience nowadays? If it’s THAT good, you can shout the occasional Bravo. It isn’t bear-baiting, it’s The Theatre.