Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Propeller in a co-production with the Old Vic and the Watermill Theatre, Newbury
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Production photo

The first sighting of the set for this production did not bode well for an amusingly entertaining evening – dark wardrobe-like structures, reflecting surfaces everywhere and concealing smoke set the gloomy scene, and the dark shrouded shape centre stage was revealed to be the Duke Orsino (Jack Tarlton) in the depths of despair as his love for the beautiful Olivia was not returned. He had however, under the sombre covering, a bottle of wine and a glass to hand. This Duke knows how to console himself, and his opening line of “If music be the food of love, play on .” was a prophesy of what was to follow. This most musical of Shakespeare’s plays has now been blessed with even more beautiful music, played or sung by almost every member of the fourteen strong talented cast on a variety of instruments.

This is Ed Hall’s Propeller, an all male company and, with the belief that any actor can play any part, no concession has been made to femininity with a lofty Countess Olivia (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) towering over everyone else and, seemingly to emphasise the point, the “women” had shorter haircuts than the men.

Masked figures are in the shadows on every level of this versatile set watching the action, the transparent masks perhaps suggesting that they are invisible. Olivia too wears a mask when she becomes a statue and hands the false letter to her pompous servant Malvolio (Bob Barrett), putting two fingers up to him as he takes it. Disbelief must be totally suspended. It is made clear that the whole performance is make-believe, while at the same time carrying us along with the story and with more clarity than many a more conventional production.

Yet despite the make-believe element, down-to-earth realism is evident at every turn. A rumbustuous drunken Sir Toby Belch (Jason Baughan) vomits on the floor, while Sir Andrew Agucheek (Simon Scardifield) finds he has to make frequent trips to the lavatory. When he is forced into combat with Tam Williams’s Cesario (the sword fight has become a boxing match) he is so terrified that he pees on the floor of the ring.

The storm which deposits twins Sebastian and Viola onto the shores of Illyria is depicted by actors throwing the couple about overhead, tossed by the human waves, rather in the style of Shared Experience and very effective.

Tony Bell is Feste the jester, always present, with fiddle under his arm, wandering through the action – a world weary jester who has seen it all before, and a wise jester who takes money for playing the fool while those around him play the fool for nothing.

Although touring, the plays are performed in repertoire, alternating nightly with The Taming of the Shrew - a real test for these versatile talented performers.

I was totally bemused by the whole play – bemused, intrigued and captivated with every twist and turn as each scene is presented in a truly original and fascinating manner, with laughter never far from the surface, except for Malvolio’s final rage as he confronts the audience with “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” delivered in a manner which sent a chill down the spine.

A magnificent production full of vitality, wit, humour and many surprises.

Touring the world – taking in Cheltenham, Oxford, Milan, Neuss and Bagnor.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Old Vic.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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