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Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
The Faction in association with The Tabard Theatre
Brockley Jack Theatre
(2009)

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Since Faction's production of Macbeth had reinvigorated my jaded interested in that piece, I returned to the Brockley Jack ripe for conversion in relation to Twelfth Night. It is a play I inadvertently overindulged on a number of years ago when I saw three productions in as many months and ever since have ascribed my disfavour to this "excess of it".

Many of Shakespeare's themes and devices are recognisable in this comedy of disguises, ambition, love and madness. Viola falls in love with Orsino whilst pretending to be a man; Orsino though pursues Olivia who falls in love with the disguised Viola and unknowingly marries her twin brother, Sebastian.

A subplot involving Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's inebriate uncle, taking revenge on her sententious steward Malvolio, provides a madcap episode before a happy resolution is arrived at for the various couples.

Whilst the play's form is satisfyingly complex and I certainly admire the technical skill of it, the plot is executed by an unlikeable bunch of lovesick fools, drunks, a puritan and a spiteful social-climber. Viola alone demonstrates both sincerity and a depth of feeling and only she and Feste introduce some judgment into the foolishness.

The farce that lies within the romantic comedy further highlights threads of self-deception and foolishness. Here, however, director Mark Leipacher's hens have come to roost; failure to clearly distinguish the social hierarchy early on results in some actions making less sense than they should and some subtleties being entirely obscured.

One of the features of the play is that the comic dénouement of Malvolio's entrapment is well set up. We are told that Maria will trick him with "obscure epistles of love". She tells the others what she has written in the letter, Malvolio reads it out and then enacts the instructions in the letter, thereby making a fool of himself. The increasing anticipation amongst the conspirators should be contagious if not hilarious for the audience but it comes across as mere repetition due to the pacing and delivery failing to manage a build-up of expectation.

Love is the central concern of the story, which gives rise to some beautifully expressed sentiments but all of the dialogue seems evenly weighted so even the heart-stopping "She sat like patience on a monument, Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?" passage gets as much focus as Belch's drunken ranting.

The production underplays the suggested sexual ambiguity arising from the mistaken identities plotline, disregarding the pertinence of the Twelfth Night festival where accepted social rules were turned on their head. All-in-all the piece could be significantly spiced up. Viola's love for Orsino is short on the frisson of repressed sexual desire, which is only given expression a conviction-lacking once.

Austin Hardiman (Antonio) has a crystal clear delivery and subtly suggests something more to his friendship with Sebastian. Maria is rendered bland by Derval Mellett, who needs more variation in her delivery whilst bare-footed Mark Leipacher could be less sexually weedy in his lovesickness.

Daniel Millar is a more bossy than prudishly pompous Malvolio, which makes him a much less obvious target for bringing down a peg or two, though it is evident why he should so dislike boring drunks Aguecheek (Alexander Guiney) and Belch (Tom Shaw). Gareth Fordred stands out as Feste.

Twelfth Night has only a grand piano and a stool for scenery, and its sole props are the instrument's removable parts. Orsino draped lengthwise over the keys wallowing in "the food of love" is a memorable image, but I am left with a sense that attention to the text has been subordinated by the exploration of staging possibilities offered by the piano. Although this production has Faction's trademark inventiveness what it reveals is insufficient to bring about a reappraisal.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti