Posted by: Richard Frost | 4 Apr 2020

English Touring Theatre: Twelfth Night review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: November 2004
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost finds English Touring Theatre have done a good job of recreating the comic in Shakespeare’s comedy

Some things in this world will never convince me. George Bush as an internationally respected war hero, John Kerry’s face as a 3-dimensional non-cardboard cut-out, Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming a credible political figure; like The Sex Pistols releasing a best-of album, it just doesn’t quite add up.

Beating the Amateurs
And whilst I anticipate a barrage of abuse for this, I reluctantly have to put amateur productions of Shakespeare into the same boat – generally they just don’t work.

Ridiculously brief and intense rehearsal schedules, hurried lines which the speakers don’t quite understand, overzealous directors imprinting oversized egos onto their one big show – all are commonplace in the immensely tricky world of amateur Shakespeare. And top of the problem pile is Shakespearean comedies – how to make 400-year-old jokes funny?

By contrast, stopping in at Gala Theatre on their nationwide tour of Twelfth Night, professional outfit English Touring Theatre (ETT) make an excellent stab at keeping Shakespeare’s light-hearted tone, without a sense that they’ve sacrificed his original intentions.

Refreshingly, we’re treated here to a director in Stephen Unwin who avoids overwhelming his production with a host of flashy ideas. And whilst it can sometimes be revealing to see Shakespeare relocated to a new setting, this production sensibly keeps to authentic period dress and minimises onstage clutter so that we focus on the brilliant wittiness of Twelfth Night’s dialogue.

Applaud the Belch
So we see the subtle interplay behind the love triangle of Viola, Olivia and Orsino alongside the unusually well-developed subplot of the riotous underclasses and their cruel love trick on Malvolio. The subplot in particular is brilliantly realised, with Michael Cronin stealing the show as the hard-living Sir Toby Belch with more than a hint of Falstaff.

Brilliantly cast with his rich, gravely voice and arrogant, portly demeanour, you truly believe every word as he roars ‘Confine? I’ll confine myself no finer than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in’. A truly dominating presence on the stage, there wasn’t a spectator in the packed auditorium who wasn’t drawn to his lifestyle by the play’s conclusion.

Promotional poster for English Touring Theatre's version of Twelfth Night

This magnetic appeal is admirably enhanced by the impossibly stupid Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Geoffrey Beevers, whose dopey stare makes him perfectly suited to the role of doting understudy. The duo form a genuinely believable comic pairing, bringing the audience to hysterics as they drunkenly burst into dance or endearingly outrageous chauvinist rants.

Admittedly, there is far less scope for farcical debauchery in the main plot. However, these actors are again well-cast as they successfully bring a more refined comedy of manners to the play, an approach that is much better suited to their contrastingly elevated status in society.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Orsino defies an unpromising CV (which records a minor role in TV series The Demon Headmaster – hmmm…) with a charismatic portrayal of Orsino; and there is even an admirable effort to coordinate the appearances of the separated twins Viola and Sebastian. In particular, Georgina Rich, playing Viola in her first professional role, gives an excellent account of herself in what is an extremely demanding setup. The recent RADA graduate visibly grows in confidence throughout the performance as she balances her role as the object of both unrequited and undesired love, whilst remaining consistent to Gareth David-Lloyd’s characterisation of her twin Sebastian.

Let’s get Physical
Perhaps the most impressive of the lot though is Olivia who believably transforms herself from an embittered mourner to a giddy lover and beyond. This was intelligently signified by the bold costume designs of Mark Bouman as she moves from an austere black mourning bodice to a free-flowing natural pastel dress.

Still more impressively though is the clever manner in which this transformation is also signified by actress Catherine Walker’s subtle hand gestures. From withering looks and severe posturing to bubbly, nervous energy following the onset of her lovesickness, Walker gives a masterclass in understated physical theatre.

However, the show has some fairly glaring weaknesses too, which can ironically be summed up in the play’s legendary opening line “If music be the food of love, play on”. More than any Shakespearean play beforehand, this script centralises the importance of the fool’s musicianship, as Shakespeare aimed to cater for the arrival of the more musically minded fool actor Robert Armin.

A Fool’s Performance
Taking on the fool’s role Feste for ETT is Alan Williams, although he seemed strangely ill-cast with a singing voice that failed to adequately pronounce the deeply symbolic words. Of the play’s many unaccompanied songs, probably the concluding 20-line song stands out as one of ETT’s major disappointments. Allowing the increasingly restless audience to be so underwhelmed by a play’s climax is a cardinal sin, leaving me with the distinct impression that the director should have severely cut the play’s musical content.

It was also notable that Williams played a peculiarly listless fool, seemingly borrowing the Shakespearean concept of a wise and melancholy fool from plays like King Lear and taking it to an extreme that proved inappropriate for comedy. Whether the decision of the actor or the director, the onstage Feste seemed oddly lacking in the qualities of quick-wittedness and verbal dexterity called for by the scripted dialogue.

What must not be overlooked though is that these flaws were more than compensated for by a generally outstanding production. ETT boast a standard of performance that justifies the director’s decision to focus on the actors and speeches – surely the best way to approach Shakespeare’s richly symbolic language.

These actors make this term’s showpiece play at the Gala a real triumph, entertaining audiences through some uncommonly good character acting alongside a genuinely comic delivery. Whether in the amateur Shakespeare productions, or in the stage-managed set of Predator and the Californian elections, these are things that a certain Mr Schwarzenegger and his ilk will sadly never rival!


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