‘What country, friend, is this?’ asks Viola at the outset of Twelfth Night; but in Dauntsey’s all-female production, thanks to a gripping opening sequence, the audience is left in no doubt of what country this is.
For by the time Viola utters her first line, the production has already moved from the hustle of a generic foreign market place, where the disturbing sounds of an air raid force the actors into a wonderfully choreographed, treacherous boat crossing, to a modern day London, complete with painted backdrop and the sounds of the M4 screeching by.
Transforming Shakespeare’s Illyria into contemporary London was a clever concept that gave plausible explanation for the refugee Viola’s need to disguise herself as a man (Cesario) whilst lending itself appropriately to the production’s main adapted motif. In this modern city, Duke Orsino was the forlorn owner of the run down Orsino’s Bar, whilst the lady Olivia was the highly strung proprietor of an altogether more refined eatery across town. The setting recast Malvolio as a buzz-killing head waiter and Sir Toby and Sir Andrew as layabouts who were seen to be continually raiding the restaurant’s alcohol stock long after the last customers had left.
Being modern, the play managed to add an extra layer of irony to Malvolio mistaking the “writing” in the planted letter which had here become a text message sent by the mischievous Maria, played by Misha Jardine with an irrepressibly infectious relish for mischief. The concept only came minorly unstuck with the continual reference to ‘swords’ in the final 2 acts being slightly misplaced.
For a play riddled with confusion, wordplay, mistaken identity, gender-bending and lewd song, the cast spoke with eloquence and meaning, delivering the verse in a way that brought clarity and fun to the myriad of complex situation and emotion that runs throughout the play. Phoebe Vernon moaned and groaned appropriately aggressively as the love-struck Orsino and Hattie Sibson was delightfully changeable as the whimsical Olivia. Maddy Steggall and Jessie Romer-Lee were able to lend a change of pace to proceedings with their well conveyed tragic undertones of affection between Sebastian and Antonio breaking up the revelry.
Undoubtedly, the chief delights of Twelfth Night arise in the dramatic irony of Olivia pursuing Cesario and the raucous behaviour of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew trapping Malvolio with their ‘device’. Regarding the former, Kate Lewis was pitch perfect as Viola/Cesario and her interchange with Olivia, the most romantic moment of the play where she confesses ‘I am not what I am’ to which Olivia replies, ‘I would you were as I would have you be!’ was spoken effortlessly and the music of the language soared in such capable hands. Concerning the later, Betty Lorimer and Chessie Turner showed through their fantastic physical performances and audience interaction that Toby and Andrew can be so much more than annoying drunkards.
As the butt of many of the jokes and burdened with one of the most famous entrances in all of Shakespeare, Esme White’s Malvolio was electric. Her switch from sneering killjoy to prancing pony was all but show stealing and she looked fantastic in yellow tights and jazzy waistcoat. Furthermore, the fool played by Carrie Kemper, was handled more engagingly and artfully than many who have suffered under such a difficult role and she was able to lead the musical numbers like a pro.
Performing Shakespeare, there is nowhere to hide for the
actors, dealing unrelentingly with the intricate language of a 450 year old
script. And yet the cast, to a woman, were able to bring a festive spirit and
elegance to the play. Re-set in a pair of modern and boozy bars, the cast and
crew must be congratulated for creating a delightful celebration of all the
dramatic elements that make Shakespeare comedy so enjoyable.
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