Twelfth Night

It was evident from the moment the curtain rose on BLT’s Twelfth Night that the audience, whatever their expectations, were about to participate in a far-from-conventional Shakespearean experience. Instead of the Illyrian seashore (for which the pre-curtain wind-and-waves effect had prepared us) we were confronted by a gaudy, 1960s-attired tableau and treated to a spirited rendition of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Had we come on the wrong month? Were we in the wrong theatre? No, this was in fact a wholly appropriate prelude to Abi Topley’s innovative and adventurous interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed comedies. As Abi rightly asserted in her interesting programme notes, the Beatles’ music and indeed the whole sixties milieu resonates powerfully with Shakespeare’s central theme of love in its many guises – repressed, misplaced, melancholic, delusional, passionate, unrequited and thwarted, but ultimately triumphant.
The play’s multiplicity of locations presents a considerable design challenge. All the scenes (with the exception of two in Orsino’s Court) take place in exterior settings – the coast, a courtyard, a garden, etc., clearly dictating a composite and unspecific setting. Here the unadorned biscuit-coloured walls, the door – and window – frames and the beaded curtain, despite the insertion of a rather incongruous flowered arch, tended to create a much more interior feel and frankly offered little in the way of visual attractiveness. The raised level was helpful but the use made of the various entrances and exits showed little consistency in terms of where characters had come from or were going to. Personally, I would have been inclined to mount this production on an open stage, using lighting (and perhaps even video projection?) on the cyclorama to create variety and colour appropriate to the sixties theme. However, chacun a son gout.
Individual performances were for the most part naturalistic and well suited to the sixties-inspired interpretation, avoiding any Shakespearean stereotypes and making the language mostly understandable to the modern ear. Twelfth Night, despite the underlying themes of self-delusion and isolation, is above all a comedy – it could almost be seen as a forerunner of the modern situation comedy. Probably the most outstanding feature of this inventive production was the extent to which the audience was able to appreciate and truly enjoy its deep vein of humour.
Kerrin Roberts was an aristocratic and languid Orsino, his laid-back delivery occasionally giving way to genuine emotion. He brought out the considerable humour of the role with subtlety, making excellent use of very mobile facial expressions and body language and frequently taking the audience into his confidence. An unusual insight, no doubt due at least in part to the direction, was the faint suggestion of ambiguity in his sexuality and the possibility that his protestations of love for Olivia might in fact be something of a ‘smoke-screen’.
As an expressive Viola, Jessica-Ann Jenner captured the right mix of femininity and boyishness, showing sensitivity and depth of feeling. She too performed the comedy well, especially in the duel with Aguecheek. She and James Dammers as Sebastian had sufficient facial similarity to give credibility to the deception and only when they inevitably appeared together did the considerable difference in their height impair this – but then, you can’t have everything. Julie Bynish’s Olivia displayed dignity in her sad piningforOrsino and blossomed into vivacity when her severe, black gown was transformed into tangerine.
The decision to cast Malvolio as a relatively young man had its merits but, to my mind, also its limitations (one of the most acclaimed recent performances was that by Richard Wilson at the RSC). In his early appearances, Richard Stewart was appropriately humourless and self-important (with, for good measure, an assumed Scottish accent), but I felt lacked a little of the prudish pomposity which made him so particularly disliked by Sir Toby and his coterie.
His later entrance, after the ‘letter’ scene, was dominated by his appearance. The ‘yellow stockings’ had metamorphosed into a skin-tight, yellow body-suit (which at least gave extra point to the complaint of ‘some obstruction in the blood’) and the ‘cross-gartering’ into a pair of lace-up boots, the whole topped off by bizarre red and black make-up and a surreal wig. Whilst the ensemble may have been in accord with the flower-power theme, to my mind it tended to make the character grotesque rather than the figure of fun which was intended. It also made it difficult for Richard fully to develop the tragic figure which Malvolio becomes, although throughout he had developed a good rapport with the audience.
The comic sub-plot was developed with inventiveness and an enormous sense of fun. As Maria, Jane Buckland gave one of the most naturalistic among many such performances. Witty and sexy, with an infectious laugh, her varied delivery was delightful and she provided the perfect foil to her cruder co-conspirators. Sir Toby Belch was presented not as the usual middle-aged sot but as a young roisterer. However, Wayne Sheridan, perhaps in the attempt to add to his years, adopted a gravelly voice which sounded uncomfortable and sometimes interfered with audibility. His boisterousness and boorish manner were well developed, although the physical aspects of his drunkenness might have been better controlled. It was frankly rather difficult to see why Maria was so devoted to him.
Felix Catto perfectly captured the incorrigible jackass Sir Andrew Aguecheek, assisted by an extraordinary full-length psychedelic robe and a flaxen wig, his ‘fight’ with Cesario especially hilariously managed. The director had sensibly excised Fabian from the ‘trick’ scene and given the lines to Feste, likeably and somewhat unusually interpreted by Tom Dignum. He delivered contemporary songs pleasantly, but was denied the opportunity to interpret the poignant ‘the rain it raineth every day’ – the only omission that I really regretted – although the ensemble rendition of All You Need Is Love was a rousing and appropriate finale to this production.
Good support was provided by James Riley as Orsino’s attendant, Stuart Comer as a sincere Antonio and Peter Yolland, successfully differentiating the Sea Captain and the Priest. The audience clearly enjoyed and were able to appreciate this creative interpretation, some way from the traditional, which will hopefully encourage many for the future. Arthur Rochester
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