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April 29, 2012

Radio Shakespeare: Twelfth Night (BBC Drama on 3)

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01g4vv1

I listened last night to the BBC's new radio production of Twelfth Night, starring David Tennant, Ron Cook, Naomi Frederick and a host of other fantastic actors. I'm not going to offer a review, as I can't claim to particularly like or enjoy radio drama. It did, however, force me to ask a couple of questions of myself regarding how I experience the form.

Quite simply, I struggle to see what people get out of the form. I have always held up my hands and admitted that my interest in Shakespearean performance is in staging. The language is, of course, an important part of that, but the dialogue is contextualised by blocking, proxemics, expression, visual elements, audience response etc. While I have no objection to a purely auditory experience of listening to actors speak Shakespeare's verse, I don't personally get a great deal out of it.

Further, on the basis of this production and others I've heard, I'm concerned that radio productions of Shakespeare tend towards the most conservative possible reading of the play. The use of sound effects throughout evoked in me the impression of a 19th century theatrical production, obsessed with accuracy of set and setting - to the extent that, at the end of the gulling scene, Malvolio and Fabian triumphed in the garden; and then there was a quick break, the sound of a door slamming, and the clowns arriving back at the house to congratulate Maria. Throughout, the aim appeared to be to create the impression of a lived, naturalistic setting, yoking the play to real places rather than the fluid spaces that characterise early modern drama.

The performances were fine. I particularly enjoyed Tennant's growling Scots Malvolio and Cook's belching, slurring Sir Toby (reprising a role he's played very effectively on stage, of course). But the medium appears to me to appeal to the most ingrained, obvious readings of characters. I can understand why purists might enjoy this kind of drama - what it does do is focus attention on the text, and forces actors to work with the humour of the words rather than, in the current RSC fashion, inserting crotch-grabs and fart jokes as easy cues. Still, I long to hear a radio production that does something truly extraordinary with a play, something that innovates rather than consolidates.


March 11, 2012

Twelfth Night (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/twelfth-night/

The RSC's first salvo in the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival is a major new trilogy of plays on the theme of shipwrecks, all performed by one company of actors. The absence of Pericles is a mystery (actually, it's not a mystery at all - it's not a play that sells seats), but the grouping of The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest and Twelfth Night is a tantalising one. Sadly, despite the drama that such a tempestuous trilogy might promise, the opening Twelfth Night seemed distinctly becalmed.

A disclaimer: I saw this production on its second preview, and the company had clearly not had time to bed in. The main problems from my point of view, in a poor seat in the upper circle, were to do with the use of space (actors looked stranded in a cavernous multi-faceted set), pace (cues were missed, action felt leaden) and technical elements (a buggy getting caught in the wings). It felt rough around the edges, particularly on two occasions where exits did not seem to have been planned, and actors simply turned around and walked offstage. The lack of fluidity, from my perspective, slowed the production to a crawl, and the majority of the laughs came from Shakespeare's lines rather than from anything in the performance of them. I like this company, however. I think the production will get much faster and funnier, and hopefully it will thrive. I should also add that the group I was with largely loved it, and I may simply be spoiled by far funnier Twelfth Nights. The presence of Kirsty Bushell as Olivia was, to me, a painful reminder of her performance in the same role in the far superior version by Filter.

Jon Bausor's glorious set combined the wreckage of a beached ship (sofas, pianos, chairs all caked in mud) with the decking of a Mediterranean resort for English ex-pats. Downstage, the decking was taken up to reveal a water tank from which Viola and Sebastian emerged on their first appearances, and into which Sir Andrew jumped in order to escape censure (to amusing but perfunctory effect). Thematically, the more interesting use to which this pool was used was as a refuse bin, particularly in an evocative image as Olivia finally cast Orsino's proffered flowers into it. With such a striking physical environment, it was a shame more wasn't made of it, though some interesting blocking saw characters repeatedly forced back onto the diving board that overlooked it, particularly tense when Olivia was trapped on the precipice by a leering Malvolio and had to edge around him to return to firm land.

With a bar in one corner, a piano in another and a tilted bed sitting upstage, there was a lazy holiday feel to the action. Nicholas Day's Sir Toby wore Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, spending his time in a state of constant inebriation while Cecilia Noble's Maria, dressed as a hotel maid, tidied up brochures. Bruce Mackinnon's Andrew, a roaring boy bearing a striking similarity to Hugh Laurie's Prince Regent in his stance and bark, was nervier and more wired, but similarly relaxed into the holiday mode. Fabian (Felix Hayes) was a builder working in the hotel who never seemed to do any work, and Feste (Kevin McMonagle) an older resident of the resort. There was a lack of any sense of urgency or time pressure about proceedings, which meandered hazily, everyone pursuing their own amusement.

This inertness applied similarly to the main plot. In the opening scene, Orsino, Valentine and Curio were discovered lounging in various states of exhaustion on rugs, sofas and across a piano, their lines coming from a place of lazy slumber. Olivia was also already onstage, lying on the upstage double bed, and Emily Taafe's Viola emerged from the water only to lie at extreme downstage during the opening scene (a device re-used for Sebastian's later appearance). The recurrent staging saw the present or future objects of people's affection appear, still, on the stage while their other halves spoke, but added nothing in an interpretive sense. This staticness and calm, playing on simple images, forestalled actual activity, as if the entire population of this resort was struggling against heat exhaustion.

This was, presumably, a directorial choice, and lent the production a nice ambience that often worked well, particularly in Bushell's outstanding Olivia, whose casual air and quiet concern for her servants were compelling and sympathetic. The atmosphere of gentle wonder suited the experience of Stephen Hagan's Sebastian perfectly, as he allowed himself to be led slowly offstage to Olivia's bed and again to marriage. Taafe's melancholy Viola was also fitted to the elegiac atmosphere, although this was damaging to the production itself - a quiet Viola, already a passive character, risks disappearing into the background entirely. The twins were primarily there to look at rather than to drive the story. While Taafe occasionally injected some energy into her performance, most amusingly her rapier-flailing attempts to drive away Sir Andrew, for the most part the character seemed peripheral to the action.

Attempts to speed up the production felt tacked on and horribly inappropriate. The disco music brought in for Sir Andrew's initial dance started suddenly, echoed tinnily in the huge room, and stopped just as abruptly in order for the next scene to start. Before Malvolio's final return at the end of the play, the music kicked in again and the cast began indulging in a bizarre energetic orgy, the couples writing on the hotel furniture, in an entirely incongruous sequence that apparently had nothing to do with the rest of the production. Much, much better was the drinking scene, which drew on the aforementioned Filter production (albeit less effectively). For the catch, the three singers began singing unaccompanied, added the sounds of small percussion instruments and a concierge bell, and built up to a climax with electronic underscore and screaming drunkards. The crescendo of this scene was organic and integrated into the play world, with a sophistication lacking elsewhere.

McMonagle's Feste was a wistful figure, older than many other Festes I've seen and taking his musical heritage from Irish folk. He carried with him a small Casio keyboard, and accompanied his sad songs with simple chords. His performances for Orsino and Toby/Andrew were beautiful, as was his rendition of "The rain it raineth", to the sound of which the two lead couples went to lie quietly on the upstage double bed in an image that showed a shared amity between the four. The production's great strength was in its reunion scene, which made much of the peacemaking between Orsino and Olivia, who embraced like brother and sister. Interestingly, Viola and Sebastian were cast with the brother absolutely dwarfing his sister, drawing attention to the differences between the two and the protective nature of the relationship between the two. The appeal of the play was toward a simple, family love.

There were gestures towards darkness, which were poorly realised. The first half closed on the image of Olivia weeping after Viola's rejection of her; and Jan Knightley's Antonio had a brusque air and a violent arrest. Both images were immediately forgotten though, and Antonio in particular received almost no attention throughout the play. Toby and Andrew were forgotten immediately after their final dispute, at which Andrew grabbed his bag and ran out in the other direction. The Sir Topaz scene, meanwhile, featured Malvolio receiving electric shocks in the darkness, but again with no sense of danger or critique. The laziness of the holiday feel became the production's key problem at these moments, with no real sense of purpose or agenda. Amusing and disquieting elements sat alongside one another without coherence, and nothing to tie together meaning.

Thank God, then, for Jonathan Slinger's Malvolio. The only actor who made the effort to really command the entire space, the theatre came to life every time he came on stage. Whether in cheap jokes such as his appearance on a resort mobility scooter to pursue Cesario, or in his wonderful attempts to move up and down staircases while wearing his circulation-cutting PVC stockings, he showed a physical and vocal dexterity that afforded the character a clear progression throughout the play and thus by default rendered him the play's focus. Slinger's smarmy hotel clerk took pleasure in his snide asides and his limited power over the other employees, and the elevation of his ambitions on reading Olivia's note (pronouncing MOAI as "moi?") was a pleasure to watch, particularly as the location of the bar behind which the clowns hid meant I couldn't see anything else of the overhearing scene. Slinger jumped on top of furniture, smiled toothily and ended the scene by running out, genuinely energised; and as he sashayed around the stage for Olivia's benefit in the second act, the theatre was helpless with laughter. His quiet delivery of "I'll be revenged", which took in the whole theatre, offered the production's most genuinely complex moment, and one only hopes that this performance remains the standard to which the rest of the production will rise over the next few months.


February 27, 2010

Three Sisters (Filter) @ Warwick Arts Centre

While I'm not going to give a review of this excellent production (go see it), as it's outside the remit of this blog, I do just have to flag up an in-joke that had me in hysterics. As the travelling players arrived at the sisters' house, only to be turned away, they could be heard singing offstage. After a few lines, I tuned in to the song they'd chosen:

What is love? Tis not hereafter/ Present mirth and present laughter....

Yes, it was my "scene of the year" from 2008, the central party song from Filter's Twelfth Night that turned the Courtyard into a party for about quarter of an hour. Lovely bit of intertextuality between productions. I don't know how many people would have seen both in order to have picked it up, but I thoroughly appreciated it!


November 11, 2009

Twelfth Night (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.rsc.org.uk/whatson/8209.aspx

Here's an interesting question. If one is updating the setting of a Shakespeare play, but needs to incorporate a vast amount of explanatory material in the production's programme and on its website, are the resonances of the updated setting not then too obscure to hold any meaning for its audience?

Gregory Doran's new Twelfth Night for the RSC was such a production. As attentive to history and reference as always, Doran chose to play with the geographical Illyria (modern day Albania) as visited by Lord Byron, identified in the programme notes as a key reference for Orsino. The world of this Twelfth Night, therefore, was remade as the final stopping point on the Romantic 'Grand Tour', a place of East-meets-West, European sensibilities and manners thrown into relief by local colour. The idea was coherent and interesting, but (in the eyes of this reviewer, at least) rendered effectively meaningless to the uninitiated as the references were so specific and distant. The colonial politics were not interrogated, and the core action of the play (duels, breeches, big houses, servants, what you will) didn't differ in its essentials from any of the other dozens of Georgian/Victorian-set productions of the play.

Perhaps it's ungenerous to demand insight, though, when the setting allowed for such a lovely aesthetic. Paul Englishby's music drew heavily on Eastern influences, with both on- and off-stage bands creating an ambient atmosphere (helped by strong incense) that evoked perfectly the luxuriousness of Orsino's lifestyle, the bazaars of the streets that linked the two houses and the Orthodox Catholicism, represented by the bearded priest who followed Olivia with an icon of Mary. The setting did also allow for some nice distinctions between "the lighter people"; Toby and Andrew were both Englishmen abroad, while Maria and Fabian were locally-recruited servants, and Feste a Mediterranean musician and purveyor of folk tales, who was shocked and appalled to be addressed by Sebastian as a "Greek": the only time any tension was drawn between the different ethnic groups living in otherwise apparently perfect harmony.

This harmony was key to a production that embraced Twelfth Night as a generally jolly and often hysterical romp pierced with moments and hints of sadness, but never allowing its good spirits to be damagingly compromised. Nancy Carroll's Viola summed up the play's general tone, reminiscent of no-one so much as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, in voice, look and attitude. Far from being a criticism, Carroll's Cesario was jaunty without attempts at laddishness, and relentlessly positive, but with a dignity and poise that set her above and apart from the people of Illyria. When being confronted with either Olivia's adoration or Orsino's praise for her rival, Viola's gentle frown and upheld chin spoke simultaneously of her wistfulness and defiance; enduring without much hope, but resilient. While a traditional Viola, Carroll succeeded in making her situation affecting and drawing a melancholy from the character that allowed her plight to matter. This resulted, too, in a rivetting reunion with Sam Alexander's Sebastian, with the intensity of her shock and happiness all the more compelling for the sadness of her earlier performance. As with all good reunion scenes, for the duration of this scene everyone else on stage seemed to disappear, with nothing else existing for Viola and Sebastian (or the audience) than each other.

Viola's sadness both echoed and threw into relief the rather more superficial melancholy of Jo Stone-Fewing's Orsino. This self-consciously poetical figure made show of calling for more music from his young male minions, moving slowly through them attending to every strain. Later, he entered in floods of tears before seeing his courtiers, turning to compose himself, then returning with a wide smile on his face. While there was some sympathy for him at first, it quickly became apparent that this man was in love with the idea of his own melancholy, rather than with Olivia. As he and Cesario spoke of love, he became rapt in the conversation and only Viola's mention of Olivia drew her back to mind; for Orsino, it was love itself that held his fascination. His attitude was particularly mocked by Feste in II.iv, who stood clicking impatiently as Orsino told Viola what to "mark" in the song, and made fun of his "melancholy god" when he was done. In the final scene, moreover, Orsino's extremes of passion were further criticised as he drew his sword first on Olivia then on Viola, threatening both in a parodic portrayal of desperate violence that illustrated all too clearly the dangers of his narcissistic performances.

Miltos Yerolemou's Feste was one of the production's highlights, the dark conscience of the play. A consummate performer, in one scene he would be rolling through Fabian's legs and across his back to avoid giving over Olivia's letter, and in the next banging a washing tub to accompany his drinking songs. His performance of "Come away, come away death" was a tour de force solo piece: unveiling a skull in a deliberate parody of Hamlet, he sang to the dead face, acting out its burial and strewing with flowers. Upon being paid by Orsino, however, he immediately cast off his sober air and began using the skull as a ventriloquist's dummy, mocking Orsino with its mouth. Yerolemou demonstrated the same skill he showed in his recent performance in Othello of being able to simultaneously act while providing meta-commentary on his own performance. Thus, in his weak attempts to entertain Olivia in his first scene, he delivered the flat jokes which failed to raise a laugh from the on-stage audience, before shrugging to the off-stage audience as if apologising for doing the best with the script he was given.

There was a darker side to this clown, however. On Malvolio's condemnation of him as a "barren rascal", he dropped the flowers he was carrying in genuine hurt at the insult, before taking cold delight in reminding the defeated Malvolio of his earlier words in the final scene. His railing tone often came close to anger in scenes such as the tormenting of Malvolio as Sir Topaz, and his constant wheedling of money from people was increasingly treated as pestering by Orsino, among others. Single-handedly, in fact, Yerolemou created most of the tension that drove his scenes, pushing the Fool's role to its limits by challenging the bourgeoise and making fun of his peers, allowing no-one to comfortably inhabit the role they had created for themselves. This was echoed in a neatly-arranged final song, used to allow Feste to comment on the play's various loose ends: Antonio marched across the stage as Feste sang "Gaint knaves and thieves men shut their gate"; Andrew left with packed bag to the sounds of "By swaggering could I never thrive"; an already-warring Maria and Toby passed by on "With tosspots still had drunken heads" as Maria threw her ring back at her new husband; and Malvolio himself entered and stopped next to Feste as the latter admitted "Our play is done", the laughter forgotten as the tension between the two threatened to spill into an unknown future.

Simeon Moore played an intense, stammering and piratical Antonio, hand always ready on his sword even as he proclaimed a deeply-felt love for Sebastian. He displayed an unusual amount of anger at Cesario, seeming to feel a deep personal betrayal of affection in Cesario's non-recognition of him. Pamela Nomvete made for a fiery and strong Maria, who had no qualms about threatening Sir Toby and Feste physically when they irritated her. Her story felt oddly unfinished, though perhaps only in relation to a consistently scene-stealing Richard McCabe and James Fleet as Toby and Andrew. McCabe's farting, swearing, slurring Sir Toby swaggered (or staggered) through his scenes, dominant and confident while in full control at all times; whether making strangling gestures behind Andrew's back or lowering his tone severely as he plotted Malvolio's imprisonment, he remained a powerful force that was only ultimately matched by Nomvete's equally strong Maria.

Fleet was the real star of the show though, in a piece of pitch-perfect casting. Bumbling and unusually self-effacing for an Aguecheek, Fleet managed the trick of making his character both ridiculous and lovable at the same time. Whether pitiful in his attempts to give Olivia flowers, comical as he became stuck in a tree, pathetic as he flailed a sword at Viola or completely lost as he forlornly admitted "I was adored. Once.", Andrew was never less than amusing but always with a sadness that made one feel mean for laughing at him. His gormless smiles were inviting even as they emphasised his basic stupidity, and his delight in recognising Malvolio's reference to him as a "foolish knight" even constituted a small victory in his own mind. He contrasted wonderfully well with Tony Jayawardena's excellent, self-aware Fabian. Often an overlooked role, Jayawardena achieved great effect with small gestures, sharing glances and shrugs with Toby that placed him on an intellectual level above Andrew that allowed him  to take the lead in manipulating the knight. Blunt and to the point, Fabian provided an earthiness that countered the shenanigans of the drunks, sharing a servant's care with Maria and, ultimately, being burdened with the responsibility for the joke: Feste, as the licensed fool, received a short tongue-lashing, but Olivia's anger focussed on Fabian as the supposedly rational, responsible servant who should have known better than the drunks and fools.

This Olivia was unusual in the range - and extremes - of her emotions. Alexandra Gilbreath's performance was summed up perfectly as she dismissed Toby, alternating screaming herself blue in the face at her departing uncle with simpering apologetically to Sebastian. Even in her dignified melancholy in the opening scenes, there was an undercurrent of playfulness; Feste's jokes quickly had her rolling in her seat, and she adopted a deliberately provocative and mocking attitude with Cesario both as she sat among her other veiled gentlewomen and in their later discussions. Cesario's "Excellently done... if God did all" was greeted, not with anger, but as a challenge in a war of wits that echoed Beatrice and Benedick at their best. Other highlights included her jumping up and down in glee as Sebastian agreed to be ruled by her, and a breathy, sexually-charged "Most wonderful!" as the possibilities for two husbands occurred to her.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the star-casting and his obvious appropriateness for the role, Richard Wilson gave a straight and traditional performance as Malvolio, impressive for a first-time Shakespearean but a little disappointing in light of the innovative performances elsewhere. He wasn't helped by cliches of staging, such as his appearance bound in a cage poking through the trapdoor for the 'Sir Topaz' scene, which left him little space to do much with. However, this older Malvolio made for an extremely creepy 'cross-gartered' scene, with him tucking his long black cloak into enormous white briefs and running his hands down his legs "sexily" to Olivia's utter horror. His ecstatic cries of "To bed?!", followed by a chase around the stage, reduced the auditorium to hysterics. However, the comic set-piece remained, as ever, the garden scene. A box tree on a high trunk was lowered onto the stage (to Andrew's shock, in a metatheatrical moment reminiscent of Judi Dench and the small house in Doran's Merry Wives), into which the three over-hearers crammed themselves, peering over the bench on which Malvolio sat and reaching down in anger as their names were mentioned. The tree shook in anger and laughter, Malvolio stood on the envelope which stuck to his foot, the plotters pleaded dramatically with God that Malvolio be inspired to read aloud. It's perhaps the best image to end with, that of a production which aimed first and foremost to please and entertain. Uncomplicated but not trivial, and the best thing I've seen at the RSC for some time.


February 13, 2009

Twelfth Night (Donmar) @ The Wyndham's Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.donmarwestend.com/twelfth_night/

Michael Grandage's first Shakespeare for the Donmar's current West End residency opened, quite literally, with a bang, a mighty crash of thunder and lightning. This call to attention opened an efficient and excellently-performed Twelfth Night that was unashamedly traditional in its desire to please and entertain. An unfussy set saw the actors perform in front of stage-high slatted flats, in a world that evoked the high society of early 20th century England, with tuxedos and dresses the order of the day.

One of Grandage's strengths as a director is his ability to draw top-drawer performances from actors. This ensemble was barely faultless, each rendering their characters lively and interesting, even down to the jealous Valentine and Curio, watching their master bestow favours on the pipsqueak upstart who they bullied and intimidated when Orsino wasn't looking.

The performance on which the production had been sold was Derek Jacobi's Malvolio, and he provided excellent value. His hilariously pompous voice and demeanour in earlier scenes, a caricature of the arrogant English butler, only made his discomposure later on the funnier. In yellow stockings and cross garters, Jacobi was game, thrusting his groin and cackling ecstatically when Olivia suggested "To bed". Most impressive, however, was his letter-reading. The scene as a whole was simply staged at the seaside, with one upstage hiding place concealing all the onlookers, and thus Malvolio commanded the entire downstage area, growing increasingly excited and ebullient as the letter progressed. His climax, the battle to contort his face into a grotesque smile, was marvellous.

Just as good, though, were the other comedians. The removal of Fabian (a particular dislike of mine - it's the first part to be cut from the play as the least memorable of the comedians, yet his role is surprisingly crucial and a good Fabian can be extremely funny) interestingly hugely increased Maria's role in the action: she and Toby joined together to play Sir Andrew and Cesario off against one another in the duel; and she confessed to her own part in gulling Malvolio and her subsequent marriage to Toby. The effect was to make Maria a far more active participant, co-ordinating the antics as much as Toby and taking responsibility for her own actions. Samantha Spiro was fast and funny in the role, confident and good-humoured: she began to obey Toby's instructions to bring more booze in direct defiance of Malvolio's presence during the drinking scene, occasioning his disapproval of her. Better still were Ron Cook and Guy Henry as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. The extreme difference in their heights led to a particularly amusing moment as Sir Andrew carelessly swung round a rolled up screen carried on his shoulder - which passed harmlessly far above Toby's head. Henry's Andrew was a fool; however, the humour didn't come from extreme ridiculousness but from his pathetically endearing aping of Sir Toby, copying him in every gesture and attempting to keep up with his plans. His insistence that "I smell it too!" in response to Maria's device was followed by him echoing Toby's every other word as he attempted to hide the fact that he didn't have a clue of the plan. Sir Toby, meanwhile, was a lovable drunk, a humourous and joyful older man undignified enough to roll on the floor yet compus mentis enough to come up with his plans.

Victoria Hamilton appeared as one of the most girlish Viola's I've ever seen, in elegant corseted dress, soaking wet from the shipwreck. As Cesario, the fact she was a woman was always clear to the audience, the comedy coming from her frantic attempts to maintain her disguise. Hamilton's appeals to the audience ("A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man") were particularly amusing, wide-eyed and nervy before rejoining the fray. However, the strongest aspect of Hamilton's performance was her love for Orsino. When delivering his first message to Olivia, her frustration and bitterness at having to woo someone on behalf of the man she loved were transparent, she becoming genuinely angry with Olivia for not seeing in Orsino what she herself could see. By emphasising the emotional and vulnerable aspects of Viola, Hamilton created a heroine we could truly invest in and laugh with. Indira Varma made for a similarly good Olivia, beginning austere and aloof but quickly cracking into laughter at Feste's early jests. Her growing love for Cesario gradually energised her as the play progressed, increasingly throwing decorum to the wind until she practically tore Sebastian's clothes from him as he agreed to be ruled by her. One of the biggest laughs came from her sexually ravenous "Most wonderful!" on beholding two Cesarios in the final scene, licking her lips and quite clearly contemplating the possibilities. Alex Waldmann was more than receptive to her advances as Sebastian, an energetic performance that emphasised the character's youth and irrepresibility. He needed no pressing to leap into bed with a strange woman, and for once the passion between Olivia and Sebastian felt justified and real.

Other parts were well performed but less impactful. Zubin Varla made for a relatively restrained Feste who, apart from a manic Irish accent as Sir Topaz, drew few laughs besides those in the text. His main strength was as musician and singer; the second act opened with an excellent djembe solo, lasting for some minutes as Viola watched, whlie his songs were performed beautifully. He was distinctly 'other' within the play's aesthetic, wearing coloured patchwork robes next to the early 20th century formalwear of the rest of the cast, but it would have been nice to have seen his role further explored. Mark Bonner's Orsino spent most of the play in dressing gown over bare chest and pyjama trousers, careless of his duties as Duke while enraptured at love. His court had distinct homo-erotic associations, with one scene showing him and his servants, all bare-chested (bar Cesario) learning formal dances in pairs. Lloyd Hutchinson's Irish Antonio, however, was the most marginalised of the main cast. His first two scenes with Sebastian were conducted as essentially walk-overs, with the two pausing in their trek across the stage to conduct the scene before moving on again. It left the scenes feeling like interludes, and Antonio's subsequent interruption of Viola and Andrew's duel lacked the impact of a man leaping to his dear friend's defence, particularly as he didn't even get as far as exchanging blows with Toby before he was arrested. This is one of the first Twelfth Nights I've seen in a while to not noticably eroticise Antonio's feelings for Sebastian, which is the tactic often used to give the character depth. Here, despite a fine performance by Hutchinson, the character simply didn't make an impression.

The final scene was perfectly pitched between threat (Orsino held a knife at Cesario) and comedy (Orsino proposing to Sebastian instead of Viola). The reconciliation between the siblings was touching, and Malvolio's promise of vengeance, hissed at Feste before opening up to include everyone on stage, suitably angry on his part, though relieved by gentle laughter as he hobbled off stage, his legs and face scuffed in black soot. During Feste's final song, as is the modern convention, we saw everyone going their separate ways: the couples leaving together, Andrew leaving alone with a suitcase, Toby and Maria heading off on honeymoon. Antonio settled for a handshake with Viola and Sebastian before leaving by himself, and the lights faded on Feste as he sang his final line.

This was a largely flawless production and hugely well-performed. My only disappointment is that it was so conventional - there were no interpretations, bits of business or deliveries of lines that felt particularly innovative or original. In this sense, it's perhaps the perfect Shakespeare for the West End - traditional, safe, well-acted, short and familiar. It's the Shakespeare that people mean when they talk about how it "should" be done. While personally I wish it had stretched itself a bit more, therefore, there's no denying that this was an extremely enjoyable production and one that maintains the Donmar's reputation for top quality Shakespeare.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.


November 08, 2008

Twelfth Night @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page http://www.filtertheatre.com/

As part of the original Complete Works 'Bardathon', I was one of the few people lucky enough to catch the earliest days of Filter Theatre's production of Twelfth Night, when it was still just a work-in-progress being tested out in the tiny Cube space. The finished version has been touring for a while now, and after two years it finally returned to Stratford for a one-night-only showing in the Courtyard.

Despite only being half full, there was a party feel in the auditorium. The play didn't begin until 11pm, and I don't think mine was the only group to have been to the pub beforehand. Combined with a noisy school group in the gallery and the younger half of the RSC Hamlet cast on a group night out, it was a convivial atmosphere that Filter played up to. The house lights were left up for the production and the company concentrated on maintaining the feeling of a shared experience, interacting freely with the audience and encouraging noisy response throughout.

Now extended to an hour and a half, this was still a heavily cut version of Twelfth Night. Fabian and Antonio were entirely excluded, and Sebastian wasn't seen until he bumped into Feste and Sir Andrew in time to be mistaken for the 'cowardly' Cesario. Other scenes were cleverly conflated to speed up the action; for example, Ferdy Roberts' Malvolio went directly from reading 'Olivia's' letter to stripping down to yellow underpants and posing before Olivia.

As with all Filter's productions, the process was a part of the performance itself. The stage manager sat on stage, all tech was controlled by performers, almost all music and sound effects were created live. This latter was particularly important in a production that effectively turned Twelfth Night into a sound-piece, moving quickly from song to song and turning every set piece into another musical number. Music was used creatively to pitch mood and ideas, as much a part of the narrative as Shakespeare's words. Thus, the play began with a free-form jazz jam semi-conducted by Orsino, out of which he suddenly plucked a single keyboard melody as his strain with a "dying fall"; and Malvolio's fantasy of being 'Count Malvolio' was conducted to a percussive, bass-led, muddy grunge tune, during which he played air-bass and drums as he got caught up in his own delusions.

The good humour of the company brought the audience onside immediately, as they waved at the kids in the gallery and wandered round the stage in their own clothes. The quirky openness of the performance style brought huge laughter at the silliest jokes, with knowing nods to the audience as, for example, Poppy Miller's Viola stuff a pair of socks into her trousers as part of her transformation into Cesario. Costumes were ad hoc and largely transparent, but what there was was used creatively: Viola borrowed a jacket and cap from audience members to become Cesario, Malvolio stripped off to reveal yellow socks and all-too-revealing bright yellow underpants, and Feste (a rather sad, downtrodden clown) wore a simple red nose, which she placed respectively on Olivia's and Malvolio's noses to show them as fools.

The one exception to costume was Oliver Dimsdale's tremendous Sir Toby, who spent much of the play wandering around the auditorium in Elizabethan ruff and jerkin, declaiming lines from Hamlet to a skull he'd picked up. This Sir Toby was truly hysterical, whether entering with the skull in place of his own head to scare Sir Andrew or belching into microphones. It was Sir Toby who kicked off the play's central set piece, a superb late night drinking scene which merits full description.

In a moment of on-stage silence, a burbled drinking song was heard being quietly sung in the wings. Eventually, Toby sneaked in, perfectly capturing the self-conscious drunk trying to be quiet, shushing the floorboards as they creaked under his feet, but still singing his refrain in a whisper ("What is love? Tis not hereafter"). He was soon joined by Sir Andrew, wearing a velcro cap with sticky balls attached to it, and the two began to sing together, still shushing each other every time their voices rose, but sending each other into hysterics. Joined by Maria, the three sang together and started throwing the balls at Andrew's head, shushing the audience's applause as they successfully connected. As the band joined in and the volume rose, the party really began. Andrew showed off some backflips, the balls were passed around the audience for them to start throwing and the rest of the cast donned party hats and joined in the singing. Andrew disappeared offstage and re-emerged with a huge stack of pizza boxes which were distributed quickly around the audience, and before long the audience were clapping and singing along, performing Mexican waves around the theatre, and the Hamlet cast were up on stage dancing with Filter. Description somewhat neuters the effect, but essentially a real party had broken out in the Courtyard which the audience got fully involved in over what must have been a good fifteen minutes. Inevitably, Malvolio marched in and turned off the power, instantly killing the party and prompting loud and heartfelt boos from the entire theatre. It was both good fun and dramatically stunning, the time taken to build up completely worth it, creating one of the most effective scenes I've ever witnessed in Stratford.

The production had its more serious elements. Gemma Saunders' Feste was particularly interesting; a cockney geezer of a clown, her songs had a slightly desperate sense of mania about them as she whipped up her audience, but then drew out moments of sadness such as her a capella "Come away, come away death" before Orsino. Doubling as Maria, she was also the subject of a brutal throat-grasping from Malvolio at the end of the party, and didn't receive her happy ending with Toby. Slightly disappointingly, the doubling of Viola and Sebastian felt less well realised in this performance than in the work-in-progress, though the impact of the same actor kissing Olivia, then kissing Orsino while still holding Olivia's hand, was still strong.

This production was focussed on the spirit of Twelfth Night, the music and festivity that pervade the play, meaning it went for celebration over interpretation. At the end of the evening, during the encore of their final song, Saunders introduced the cast by name with a "Thank you Stratford!" that stressed the fact this was as much gig/party as play. That sense of joy, along with the excellent music, made this an evening to remember, a production that took a genuinely innovative approach to the play that revitalised it and made it fun. While there were flaws (some of the songs dragged a bit, and the dialogue sections between the set-pieces were far less interesting - Shakespeare intruded far too much!), this was a brave and inspired production. Roll on Filter's next show.


September 05, 2007

Twelfth Night @ The Courtyard Theatre

I’m of the opinion that Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s greatest pieces of work. It’s funny, deep, very clever and features some of the greatest characters in the canon. Its immediate appeal is apparent from the number of productions of the play put on every year. The last twelve months alone have seen Filter, Cheek By Jowl, Propeller, Chichester Festival and the RSC all present the play in the UK, as well as any number of student and amateur productions. It’s also the play I’ve seen the most, in no less than five versions. Clearly, there’s something about it.

So why then is it so difficult for companies to put on good productions of it? Of the five productions I’ve seen one was unforgivably dire and one (the RSC’s last offering in 2005) had interesting moments but was horribly flat with some atrocious performances. Filter’s had promise, but the work-in-progress presentation was far from finished. By contrast, Cheek By Jowl’s version was one of the greatest pieces of theatre I have ever seen, but surely the play must be able to work in English as well as in Russian? I had high hopes for last night’s new RSC production, but again the play fell victim to the curse I seem to put on Twelfth Night whenever I buy a ticket.

It started well. Onto a stage dominated by a grand piano, costume racks and mirrors staggered James Clyde’s Feste, in tatty tuxedo and dishevelled in a manner Russell Brand would be proud of. Employed for his wonderful piano skills as well as his fantastically rakish look, he set straight to work on a stirring and deeply sad piano tune, to which Orsino came on in dressing gown, holding the audience rapt for a good five minutes as the music stirred at something within him. This was a powerful and wordless moment that introduced the two best performers in the piece to great effect: Jason Merrells’ Orsino brought the tortured conflict of the character to the forefront, while Clyde as Feste stole the show at every turn, only flagging towards the end when his irreverent sarcasm started to become annoying. For most of the play, though, his witty line in mimicry and random silliness was entertaining and I found myself sitting through other scenes waiting impatiently for his next appearance.

The Big Concept for this production was cross-gender casting, with a male Viola and female Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian. Chris New did a reasonable job with Viola, but unfortunately those of us who saw Andrey Kuzichev in the same role only six months ago in Stratford know the wonder of watching a man who can convince us he is a woman. New was steady, and very funny in places, but felt incidental in a production which looked elsewhere for its focal points. New provided one particularly special moment in his second interview with Olivia, however, when he knelt as if to propose, taking her by the hand and looking her in the eye. She focused nervously on him as he gently told her that he only had one heart that no woman would ever be mistress of, and the slow heartbreak of the moment on her part was painful to watch.

Regular readers may recall that I hate, with something of a passion, staggered curtain calls. I don’t mind particularly important performances being acknowledged individually (Anne-Marie Duff in St. Joan, for example) but I really don’t like curtain calls where the actors troop on in order of importance. Last night, all the incidental figures, servants etc., came on first, and were then followed by Viola, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia and Antonio. They were followed by Toby, Andrew, Maria and Fabian, and finally Feste and Malvolio took the lead bow. In what world does FABIAN get a higher priority curtain call than VIOLA?! I ask you.

Not that I minded Fabian. In fact, of all the low comedians (bar Feste), Fabian was the only one I considered worth watching. Joanne Howarth gave a very solid performance with buoyancy and an enthusiasm that made Fabian (normally the first character to be cut from the play) a far funnier and more important stage presence than usual. It was revelatory, in the sense that it was the first time I had really noticed Fabian onstage and realised how much Shakespeare gives him to do and say.

Fabian stood out next to the other comedians, who were just poor. Siobhan Redmond’s Maria was the most unbearable, walking with a waddle and talking with a slightly exaggerated Scottish accent that turned the character into a caricature. She had no discernable personality beyond the words she was saying at the time and bored me. Forgivable in a production where Maria is playing the straight-person to the comedy pairing of Toby and Andrew, but no such luck here. Marjorie Yates was passable as a caricature of an English landowner, but her Toby was unfunny, relying on the most basic of falling over routines in order to get laughs.

Annabel Leventon’s Sir Andrew was the worst though. Looking like nothing so much as a Thunderbird puppet with a stiff walk, set smile with teeth open so far that they could have had a cigar permanently set in them and an accent so faux-upper-class that it frequently became unintelligible, she was almost offensive in her ludicrous caricaturing. Occasionally, VERY occasionally, this worked to cause a laugh, and her falling-over sequences were actually amusing, but the posturing became irritating within seconds and her forced fixed expressions prevented any variation in the character. Sir Andrew is usually made ridiculous, but take the ridiculousness too far and you can feel like you’re watching a cartoon.

This was an actor-based performance, relying little on design elements, and unfortunately it was the performances that let it down. Justine Mitchell played a surprisingly funny Olivia, and John Lithgow was good value as a particularly strait-laced Malvolio, but overall this production felt redundant. The entrances and exits were cribbed from Cheek By Jowl’s style, the final scene of characters leaving from Trevor Nunn’s film version, the yellow stockings scene was as unimaginative as is possible and, perhaps most frustratingly, the concept of the comedians as female was entirely unused, as all three women were made up as men and their female selves were ignored, strange in a production which was so proud of its cross-gender casting that it spent the entire programme talking about the wonders of men and women cross-casting. A wasted opportunity.

Oh, and whoever brought the school group who decided to go “Ewwwwww” whenever two male actors kissed should, in my humble opinion, be shot.


June 28, 2007

Twelfth Night @ Warwick Arts Centre

There are dangers to taking on Shakespeare. People are obviously drawn to the history, the accessibility, the guaranteed audiences and the copyright-free texts, but sometimes the dangers get overlooked. Perhaps the most overlooked problem when tackling a Shakespeare play is the question of “Why?”. When every play has such a rich performance history, why do it again? What is new about your production? Why do we need this production now?

This is a problem more easily overcome when tackling one of the more obscure plays, as one group are doing in Warwick Student Arts Festival with ‘Cymbeline’, a play which has had no student performances in local memory for quite some time, if ever. However, when tackling one of the more canonical texts, it becomes a different matter. If you’re going to do ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Macbeth’, for example, you need to know why. Tonight’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’, the other Shakespearean offering at WSAF unfortunately failed to make a case for itself.

I don’t know if director Alex Knight saw Filter’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’ during the Complete Works Festival, but the two invite close comparison. Filter cut the play to an hour and five minutes, Knight to an hour and a half. Filter performed it with six actors, Knight with seven. Both companies performed in studio sized spaces, both doubled Viola and Sebastian. This had the unfortunate effect, from my perspective, of making tonight’s production seem highly derivative and, without the resources of a professional company, inferior.

The nature of WSAF means that productions have short rehearsal periods, low technical capabilities and very little funding, which obviously limits capabilities to an extent. However, several recent student productions have recently demonstrated how excellent drama can be created on a shoestring with a strong company. It’s a shame, because I think a good production lay at the heart of this performance, but there was clearly still a long way to go.

Sam Kinchin-Smith (Feste)

‘Twelfth Night’ boasted on its Facebook group of one of Warwick’s best casts, which is somewhat of an overstatement. The 90 minute running time was partly achieved through cutting, but mostly managed by the company speaking their parts at a gallop, with little inflection, expression or, in some cases, any sense of interest in what they were saying. The plot raced so fast (yet keeping all its major elements) that a prior knowledge of the play was needed to keep up, and a steadier approach would have given the actors time to inject some emotion or feeling into their lines.

It didn’t help that the approach to the play was a relatively serious one, with a sombre mood throughout. While this could have worked, the lack of time to engage with or get to know any of the characters meant that the audience lacked that connection which would have allowed us to care what was going on. Viola particularly suffered here, with Claire Trevien providing a cocky, unlikable Viola/Cesario who welcomed and dismissed everyone she spoke to in seconds and never had time to engage with anyone, either on stage or in the audience. The doubling of Viola and Sebastian, an interesting (if not unique) staging device, was here ultimately resolved with a full-length mirror, resulting in the ultimate image of Sebastian standing with Olivia while Orsino talked into his own reflection- a ridiculous image that removed the central character at the climax of her story. There was potential here, but it was clearly underdeveloped and the moment was swiftly passed by, thus forestalling any embarrassment.

The other particularly irritating device was a clapping, that ‘off-stage’ actors did in unison while certain scenes were happening on-stage, such as Malvolio’s reading of the letter. I honestly don’t know what the intended effect was of these random rhythms, but in practice they drowned out all dialogue from where I was sitting (on the front row) and seemed relatively arbritrary in their execution. I found myself, to my disappointment, longing for an interval so I could soothe the headache from straining to hear the dialogue, and was dismayed to realise that the whole play was going to be done in one act.

It wasn’t all bad. Tom Steward’s Sir Toby was funny, and there was one very funny moment towards the end (which slips my mind now) that had me laughing out loud. Sam Kinchin-Smith’s Feste, while weak onstage, had an excellent offstage presence, watching with a wry smile from a keyboard and mouthing along to other character’s lines, lending the character an interesting metatheatrical element which was sadly not carried through in the play proper. Overall, though, this was a very weak production which I really wanted to like, but lent nothing new to the play and was marred by poor performances.


March 25, 2007

Before the Bardathon

As we enter the final week of my year-long project, I’m going to be posting a few retrospective entries in addition to the final couple of reviews. First up, I thought for interest I’d mention my PREVIOUS Shakespeare theatre-going.

I haven’t been attending the theatre as long as many people think. Being a Northerner born-and-bred, and not having a lot of money at that, my theatregoing ability was severely restricted until I started university five and a half years ago. Even since then, it’s only been a couple of years since I really discovered Stratford and started going regularly, and my experience of Shakespearean performance in London is also somewhat limited. What I HAVE done, however, is read and study performance history extensively, which has helped me catch up in no small part on the productions I’ve missed. In addition, I’ve watched pretty much every screen production I can get my hands on.

So, before the Complete Works, what have I seen? A good few productions still, though my memory of them fails in several places. For interest, then, here’s what I have seen:

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC 2005, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Aside from a big tree, a very VERY dull production of ‘As You Like It’ by Dominic Cooke. Some nice moments, but from the Circle the production died a slow and painful death in the second act, which was far longer than the first, and simple wasn’t funny apart from Paul Chahidi’s Touchstone.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (RSC 2005, dir. Nancy Meckler, at the RST)

Hysterical and highly acclaimed, as well as introducing me to the talents of Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger as the Dromios. Fast, funny and exactly how an ‘Errors’ should be.

HAMLET (RSC 2004, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I don’t remember much of this, apart from a few single moments. I do remember, however, Toby Stephens’ Hamlet being pretty damned good!

HENRY V (WUDS 2002 at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

A student production- very low budget, but lively and, particularly in the memorable scenes involving the four soldiers of different nationalities, quite funny too. An all-female cast was the main innovation.

KING JOHN (RSC 2001, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Swan)

Memorable mostly for a spectacular fall from the upper balcony for Arthur, and for the spectacular use of flags and symbols. Generally a very good production, though I enjoyed the 2006 production better.

JULIUS CAESAR (WUDS 2002/3? at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Notable for being the last (I believe) non-musical student production to be staged in the main theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Solid performances all round, a good use of stage space and innovative use of hand-held cameras for the war scenes made this a very interesting production.

MACBETH (Theatre Babel 2002?, at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Not the greatest ‘Macbeth’, but a fantastic set of dangling swords that descended to ground level and were a constant reminder of the ever-present threat.

MACBETH (RSC 2004, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Bizarrely, all I can remember of this production is the England scene, particularly Clive Wood’s Macduff. I seem to remember enjoying it, however.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC 2005, dir. Gregory Doran, at the RST)

Truly magical, and only bettered by Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’. Spectacular use of scenery, puppets and physical movement made this a true joy to watch, along with Malcolm Storry’s excellent Bottom and yet another hysterical performance by Paul Chahidi as Quince. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ will remain with me forever.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC, 2006, at Warwick Arts Centre)

I can’t find anything anywhere about this event, which was performed for one night only at Warwick Arts Centre as part of a tour. Part concert, part performance, it saw a major orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, while RSC actors performed the play between the beautiful score. While necessarily heavily limited by a tiny stage space and the concert format, this was a very fun version of the play, with excellent conflict between the lovers in particular and a superb orchestra playing the most famous Shakespearean music there is. Unfortunately, the evening was coloured by the fact my back collapsed and I had to be taken home by an ambulance afterwards…...

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (WUDS 2004?, dir. Ben Fowler, at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

An interesting ‘Much Ado’, with spectacularly staged overhearing scenes and some interesting things to say about the play. Variable performances, but overall an interesting production.

OTHELLO (Cheek By Jowl 2004, dir. Declan Donnellan, at Riverside Studios London)

One of those divisive productions which people either loved or hated. Seeing it in traverse in London helped, I believe, but still I disliked the slow-talking Iago who seemed to have little control over his actions. However, the cast in general were excellent and the brutal murder of Desdemona, picking her up by the neck, was truly shocking.

SIR THOMAS MORE (RSC 2005, dir. Robert Delamere, at the Swan)

A highly enjoyable production that first introduced me to Nigel Cooke, who was similarly excellent in ‘Pericles’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ this season. Violent and exciting, a production which made a very strong case for the increased study in the theatre of this play.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (RSC Touring Company 2000, dir. Lindsay Posner, at Epic Leisure Centre, Ellesmere Port)

A fascinating induction, setting the play in modern day with Sly surfing for porn on the internet and eventually stumbling across an online video of the play. After that, a very funny production that still stays in the mind despite the relatively long time since and my unfamiliarity with it. Still the only RSC touring production I’ve seen.

THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare’s Globe 2000, dir. Lenka Udovicki, at the Globe)

My only experience of the Globe, and an interesting production- with a memorably ethereal Ariel who left the auditorium through the audience, a violent Caliban who kept the crowd laughing with his constant swearing at the overhead planes, and Vanessa Redgrave as an interesting Prospero.

TWELFTH NIGHT (RSC 2005, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I remember much favourable about this production, mostly the comedians- Forbes Masson, Andrew Mackay and Clive Wood winding up Richard Cordery’s Malvolio to perfection, before going on to greater things in the History plays this year. However, I hated this at the time- overall it was sloppy and dull, with awful performances from Viola, Olivia and Sebastian in particular. Lots of interest, lots of style, but very few laughs and an ultimately dull reading.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (RSC 1998, dir. Edward Hall, at the Swan)

And finally, the first Shakespeare I ever saw. This picture is the only bit I really remember- a very funny Crab and Launce, who stay in my mind over nine years later. The Swan has remained one of my favourite theatres over the years too, and it’s nice to think back this far, to the start of my RSC viewing, and still be able to recall little things about a play.


March 03, 2007

Twelfth Night @ The Swan Theatre

Has it really been nine months since I last saw this production? When the Russian ensemble from the Chekov International Theatre Festival visited Warwick Arts Centre back in May 2006, I was only a few plays into the Complete Works Festival, and at the time it was one of the best things I’d ever seen. Funny, moving, fast, stylish, musical, visually stunning and, especially considering it was performed in Russian, one of the clearest tellings of a Shakespeare play I’d ever seen.

Nine months later, nothing’s changed. I’ve only seen one play that I’ve considered more successful, and that only by a pinch (Dash Arts’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’). The standing ovation, flowers and multiple encores were fully justified in a production that yet again reminded me why I’ve chosen to give up so much of my life to this project.

I’ve written about this production before, so I won’t try to give a full run-down. Instead, I’ll stick to a list of the highlights. The moment when Toby, in his drunken rage, punches Maria to the crowd in the middle of a raucous drinking scene is one of the most effective individual moments I’ve ever seen on the stage, instantly stunning an audience into silence. Then, as he sobs on her back in apology and she downs vodka shots, the two of them start to sing to the music until she is table-dancing to a Russian anthem- a completely triumphant moment which drew a round of applause.

At least eight of the performances are among the best in the Festival. The three boys playing women are utterly believable, and Andrey Kuzichev’s layered performance, as a man playing a woman playing a man, is uncanny. Igor Yasulovich’s Feste drew several individual rounds of applause for his songs, money-grabbing antics and general perception on stage. Sir Toby is the most believable drunk I’ve yet seen on stage, and Dmitry Dyuzhev’s Sir Andrew clowns for all he’s worth, whether wrestling invisible foes to the floor or screaming at the sight of Cesario. Antonio remained a grizzled, sober presence among the hilarity, and the bewildered Sebastian became a force of pure joy as he was won by Olivia. Finally, Dmitry Shcherbina’s Malvolio is a strait-laced butler, nowhere near as callous as other Malvolio’s, and his final comeuppance as he served drinks at the wedding party was truly satisfying.

The direction was immaculate, as scenes overlapped and the words of exiting characters resonated over the new action. Comedy and pathos were brought out of tiny moments – one highlight was Orsino, after the revelations, approaching Sebastian as his new ‘bride’, before realising his mistake and giving a manly apology. On the other hand, Malvolio’s reading of the letter descended into tears of thankfulness, the comedians looking uncomfortably down at him as he sobber on the floor, the first half closing on Toby’s line ‘He will run mad’.

I could watch this production several more times and still love it- it is simply the best ‘Twelfth Night’ I have ever seen, and it was a pleasure to see the Stratford matinee audience responding with the best reaction I’ve yet seen to a play. With only four plays left to go, it’s good to see the atmosphere still so strong!


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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