Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 8 October 2018
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Shifting emotions are filtered through autumnal sunlight in the Lyceum’s Twelfth Night, with as much defiant sadness on view as happy resolution.
Shakespeare’s comedy of cross-dressing, confusion and misplaced love lends itself easily to contemporary questions of gender identity, and these are certainly explored in this co-production with the Bristol Old Vic.
Director Wils Wilson, however, is not necessarily going to address such concerns in the way you might expect, and the audience is certainly wrong-footed at the start. The opening scene – featuring a gaggle of bohemian flower children deciding to perform the play in a dilapidated country house at the close of a period of riotous celebration – strikes an odd note and does not seem necessary. The programme for the play suggests a 60s psychedelic theme, but many of the costumes, notably the platform soles and Elton John specs, seem rather to evoke the 70s glam-rock era.
Either way, it promises a primary-coloured riot of brashness, which is certainly true of Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s striking set and costumes. Strange to report then, that there is a woozy melancholy at this production’s heart, echoing that idea of being at a party that has gone on far too long. Meilyr Jones’ haunting music – more reminiscent of earnest 70s singer-songwriters than glittery stompers – only adds to the underlying sorrow.
There is always a bittersweet tinge to Twelfth Night, but it is predominant here. Death, cruelty and rejection are always just around the corner. Malvolio’s treatment is often shown to be an exaggerated response to his pomposity, but it is made abundantly clear here that other characters more deserving of happy endings – such as Brian James O’Sullivan’s loyal and thoroughly decent Antonio – do not get them.
There is also a deep sadness behind the comedy of Guy Hughes’ Andrew Aguecheek. More a put-upon nice-but-dim toff than the usual self-deluding fop, his treatment as nothing more than a plaything by Dawn Sievewright’s brutally comic Lady Tobi verges on the criminal.
Sievewright’s excellent performance is one of many outwardly surprising castings in an intriguingly gender-fluid production. The possibilities for confusion in the original are exploited throughout. Some characters have definitively swapped gender, others are played across gender with no excuse necessary, and some are tantalisingly in between.
This gives much of what takes place a strangely unfinished feel, and the pairing off at the end becomes less definitive. The suggestion is that acceptance of difference remains more of a process than a finished item, and there are still going to be those who are left out.
One of those left behind is undoubtedly Christopher Green’s Malvolio. The creator of Ida Barr and Tina C can always be relied upon for an unusual characterisation, and his ‘cross-gartered’ incarnation – a bizarre lovechild of Tim Minchin and Basil Fawlty – has to be seen to be believed.
Equally impressive is Dylan Jones’s Feste, a perfect blend of physical and verbal clowning, mixing wistful, hopeful, cynical and mercenary in equal parts.
There is also plenty of humanity in Jade Ogugua’s Viola, with her combination of wisdom and naivete lending the more poetic lines an effective lustre. Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s Olivia is very much passion’s slave, giving her exchanges with Viola a raw power.
Jade Ogugua, Joanna Holden and Lisa Dwyer Hogg. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Colette Dalal Tchantcho gives Orsino’s jealousy and anger an unusual force, while Joanne Thomson’s bewildered Sebastian adds to the Sunday-morning-coming-down feel of the finale. This is reinforced by the lack of resemblance between Thomson and Ogugua, which is partly played for laughs but only adds to the dislocation.
There is a real comic spark to Joanna Holden’s Maria, while Aly Macrae seems in danger of bringing the house down doing very little.
That this comes in a 60s spin on the role of the Priest shows that whole chunks habitually cut out are left intact here. This undoubtedly makes for a very long production. And that is without considering the added songs. These are, admittedly, wonderfully discharged by a musically versatile cast.
A little judicious trimming might have made for a tighter ship – many of the serious scenes are in danger of outstaying their welcome, while not all of the comedy hits the mark – yet in one sense it is this production’s slightly baggy feel that is one of its attractions.
The casting and staging choices make for an open-ended, questioning evening. It is far from the mind-expanding clarion call it might appear. Instead it is an endearing portrait of a world that is decidedly imperfect, with a collection of battered individuals who may make fools of themselves, but are willing to find out who they want to be.
Running time 3 hours 10 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Friday 14 September – Saturday 8 October 2018
Evenings Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm. Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.00 pm.
Information and tickets: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/twelfth-night.
Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol, BS1 4ED
Wednesday 17 October – Saturday 17 November 2018.
Evenings Mon – Sat (not Oct 12): 7.30pm; Matinees Thurs, Sat & Tue 13: 2.30pm.
Information and tickets: https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/twelfth-night.
Meilyr Jones, Colette Dalal Tchantcho, Brian James O’Sullivan, Jade Ogugua, Aly Macrae, Dawn Sievewright, Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Dylan Read, Joanna Holden, Guy Hughes. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic