York Theatre Royal
Juliet Forster's first show for York Theatre Royal's main stage is one of Shakespeare's best-loved comedies, and the approach aims to be refreshingly light. But the play is not simply a happy dream, and some of its more powerful elements aren't always well-handled in this entertaining but at times uneven interpretation.
The production opens with a striking depiction of the typhoon which separates Viola from Sebastian, a sail the height of the theatre wrestled by two sailors until it becomes a screen for the production's only use of projection. As we see dreamlike images of Viola swimming upwards towards the air and light of Illyria, the scene is set with the sail being drawn up to reveal the deep, open stage, somewhere between gym, shipwreck and beach. It's a beautifully realised setting (designed by Dawn Allsopp), although more clearly demarcated use of lighting or blocking may have helped convey more of a sense of different locations within this mystical kingdom.
One of the key problems is that, with the set open and generally fairly evenly lit, very few moments draw the audience in to create complicity with the characters. Viola (Danielle King) performs comedy well, particularly in the "duel" between herself and Aguecheek. But on this large, airy stage she struggles to connect on any deeper level with the audience, and her delivery of the verse does not always satisfactorily communicate meaning.
The comic relief of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and their drinking chums also gets off to an uncertain start, in which the Shakespearean puns are rushed past, rather than explicated to the modern audience. However, Blair Plant's Belch and Paul Westwood's Aguecheek warm to the roles, and the comic subplot involving the scheme against a preeningly pretentious Malvolio (Dick Bradnum) is by far the most entertaining element of the night. The "letter" scene, in which Malvolio is duped into wearing yellow garters and smiling grotesquely at his (mourning) mistress, shows a great inventiveness and sense of fun. Ian Harris, playing the violin and taking the minor role of Belch's crony Fabian, must also be commended for the liveliness he brings to both of these aspects of his performance.
Elsewhere, the contrasts between characters are sketched in, but not quite fleshed out. Most distracting is the young and at times almost childish Olivia (Jade Anouka), who comes across as surly rather than dignified - hardly a woman with the strength of faith and intense devotion to mourn her deceased brother for seven years - and her duets with Viola suffer for this.
Most of the performances are solid, and the subplot is entertaining. But with uncertain contributions from the two lead female actors, the motor of the play feels somewhat underpowered. There are moments at which this production approaches the dream-like state to which its director was aspiring. But the pace, at times, is too slow and the shifts between plot and subplot too uneven for it to flow in quite the way it should, though Colm Gormley's likeable Feste leaves us on just the right note with a touching rendition of "The rain it raineth every day".
Reviewer: Mark Smith