Bristol Old Vic – until 17 November 2018
There was a frisson of energy emanating from the auditorium come the climax on press night for the Bristol Old Vic and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh’s co-production of Twelfth Night. Yet as others stood and screamed, I sat rather bemusedly in my seat. This production promises to be real marmite, for some, its inventive comedy and irreverent tone provides a perfect tonic to the rather dry tome they remember from their schooldays. For those English teachers struggling to get their class invested in this wintery comedy, this production may prove just the tonic. Yet delve beneath the fun and it’s lacking fundamental insight, the melancholia that exists within this work has been excised completely from the production.
It’s a work that doesn’t feel fully interrogated like director Wils Wilson and company haven’t been brave enough to kill their babies even if it gets in the way of thoroughly investigating the text. It starts from the top; a 60s hallucinogenic house party that sees the post come down party guests grab the script and begin to read.
It gives context to designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s dilapidated country manor setting and by and large provides a solid enough introduction, even if it then blows the first few lines of one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies ‘If Music Be The Food Of Love, Play On’ in a weirdly phrased take. Yet as the world of the play bleeds into the anachronistic setting, it forgets its premise that so by the end we’re in fair Illyria completely and not remotely in the world of Country Living. It’s a conversation you can imagine felt like the opening with decisions made and money spent, one that could not be thrown away, hence a half-hearted middle ground with no closure cum the end.
Directors have every right to explore the classics how they wish but it should be part of any job description that they try to extract the mood and texture of the page onto the stage. Here the comedy is played to the hilt, a rash of well-timed slapstick and gestural knockabout. Yet it’s as if the underlying sadness did not interest Wilson, and so she has gutted it completely. Gone is the painful cruelty inflicted upon Malvolio post galling, gone is any of the romantic tension between Orsino and Viola in her disguise as Cesario. Loss is as big a part of the play as love but it’s been stripped away here. It only feels half a play as a result.
Yet the half that exists is as good as can be. Invention is constantly to the fore, and it possesses in Dawn Sievewright’s gender-flipped Toby and Guy Hughes’ platformed heeled Aguecheek two of the finest interpretations of the roles you are likely to see, Sievewright, in particular, turning the usually old lush Uncle into a honking yet oddly troubling take on a woman who doesn’t know when to call it a night. Lisa Dwyer Hogg and Jade Ogugua also provide some light and shade as the grief-stricken Olivia and shipwrecked Viola, both speak the verse fluently and confidently and add what depth they can
The star turn though is performance artist Christopher Green’s Malvolio and it’s his own strengths and weaknesses that also come to define the works. If his early stiff-necked take on the pompous man servant feels a little too much like John Cleese’s ministry of silly walks, his yellow garter scene is a showstopper; as he appears in glistening gold glam rock and gets an anthemic song that rocks the building. It may not be exactly Shakespeare but it’s highly effective.
It’s a show you really do need to see to form your own opinion. For every dissenting voice that fears it has gone too far from its origins, there will be another cheering that it brings Shakespeare alive. If nothing else Wilson has produced a rollicking evening of entertainment, even if it is only a surface level take on this most beguiling of masterpieces.
Twelfth Night plays at Bristol Old Vic until the 17 November.