By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Munby
English Touring Theatre
Theatre Royal, Brighton
Friday 28th November 2015, 19.45
The set with rose petals
So many Twelfth Nights … there was a sudden spate which we saw just before I started this blog. All in all, this might even be the twelfth I’ve seen. This one is English Touring Theatre, and is only doing short runs in various towns.
It’s a fascinatingly different take, not by being “high concept” but rather by focussing attention on aspects of the text that are all there, but not always accentuated. It’s set in a faded grey-white mansion with broken windows and high shutters, and the costume is 1920s-ish. Not exactly, as the male uniforms look earlier, and the frocks later, but early 20th century covers it.
The whole is bookended by a song from Feste, generally the most difficult character, but here an Irish folk singer and central to the concept. Feste’s opening song draws the cast in through windows and wardrobes onto the stage, and at the end they melt back through the windows and the wardrobe (think Lion, Witch and …) leaving him alone. Brian Protheroe sings well, plays well and brings more sense to the existence of Feste, Olivia’s Fool, than normal. The composition sounds like a Waterboys song you’ve missed, but with Shakespeare’s words. The music is excellent throughout.
The costumes are excellent too, with maroon, light Prussian blue and red giving a definite palette. Certainly one excellent point is putting Viola and Sebastian in maroon military jackets. Because it’s a uniform from their country, and which only they wear, it gets over the awkward point about her deciding to dress in his style and getting it absolutely identical, not that we ever worry too much about the logic in these twin plays.
As Michael Billington said in “The Guardian” there have been funnier Twelfth Nights (I’d add much funnier), but this has other virtues, and this one is from a first rate touring group, but without a Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Fry or other star importing external charisma. That’s taken as read. It focusses on the various passionate interactions, with rose petals produced from within costumes and scattered at cupid’s arrow moments. It’s a series of love stories, in variegated forms.
Malvolio is dignified (Hugh Ross), and played straight among the chaos. We genuinely feel sorry for him.
Feste, Sir Andrew, Sir Toby Belch
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew work well together, and work as a duo – some productions have the intrinsically funnier role of Sir Andrew eclipsing Sir Tobys who are just noisy. Here there was a team feel, which is right. Milo Twomey’s long haired tall Sir Andrew is in a cricket jacket. Sir Toby Belch (David Fielder) is small (though not fat or overly red-faced) and does drunk well. Fabian works well with them, though it always seems to be a part that appears from nowhere. You think he would have appeared before the crucial overhearing scene when Malvolio reads the letter which Maria faked.I have often thought there was a missing bit in the play. There were quite a few cuts in this one anyway.
They get a lot of humour from the gender mixes.It’s expected with Orsino (a particularly powerful and handsome Orsino from Jake Fairbrother) and Viola dressed as the boy Cesario. We don’t usually get the girl to girl kiss with Olivia and Viola. Antonio and Sebastian do the full kiss too – the words were always there, but generally taken in a more universal sense. As usual, Olivia comes across as a great female role. Rebecca Johnson gets all the nuances and double takes and “thinks” about the twin possibilities out of the part.
Fabian, Sir Toby, Maroa
At times it seemed mildly rushed, perhaps a lack of detail stage direction on business. It lingered on the songs but rushed other bits. For example, Viola just rewards the seaman who rescued her with coins. I’ve sen this where she’s flustered, and takes off her necklace … the only money she has. There were, I suspect, a nod or three to business in the Globe production. The one on DVD featuring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry. For instance, when Orisino is strangely moved by Cesario’s presence in the song, and they reach to and touch hands, the angle, backs to the audience is just the same as the Globe. It’s not as funny because they do it too fast. They also lose the sense the Globe had of Cesario as a puppet pulled between Olivia and Orsino. One of the funniest bits is where Olivia throws her shoe in anger then has to hobble on one high heel. Mark Rylance did that. Maybe he wasn’t the first to do it, I don’t know, but it was a recent and prominent production.
Malvolio reads Olivia’s letter
We discussed the tiny details afterwards. Modern directors tend to “produce” but not stage direct nuances, feeling it’s stepping on the actors’ creativity. I have no idea how this was done, but we could see quite a few tiny notes that could and should have been given. Viola is a hard part to play. In pantomime terms, you start off as Princess and mutate into Principal Boy. Therefore it needs those little touches that say “I’m a girl pretending to be a boy.” We got the costume, but not much more. It needed detailed stage direction work, which we felt lacking throughout.
In the end, around us in Brighton we had “restless audience syndrome.” Stretching, banging the seat in front etc. It’s because the play was less less engaging than it could be, in spite of a host of good ideas, and generally fine performances.
TWELFTH NIGHT ON THIS BLOG:
Twelfth Night RSC 2012 Jonathan Slinger as Malvolio
Twelfth Night – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance (Olivia), Stephen Fry (Malvolio)
Twelfth Night- ETT 2014, Brighton Theatre Royal, Hugh Ross (Malvolio)
Twelfth Night, National Theatre 2017, Tamsin Greig (Malvolio)