The Lord Chamberlain's Men
St Anne's Churchyard, Soho, and touring
The Lord Chamberlain's Men (at least in this incarnation) celebrated their fifth birthday with what I believe was their first London performance. Like their predecessors 400 years ago, they are an all-male company and they present Shakespeare in Elizabethan(ish) dress. They tour the country, mostly playing with one-night stands and this year are visiting 80 different locations, many of them stately homes and other historic venues - though, unlike Shakespeare's company, they stage their productions out-of-doors rather than in inn-yards, guildhalls or the great halls of the aristocracy.
With only seven actors, who also muck-in to erect the stage and set up the show, they are only half the size (or less) of Shakespeare's company, though his too may also have toured with reduced personnel, and this date comes in the middle of an exhausting three-month summer tour, most of it one hopes in more clement weather than greeted them in Soho.
Despite the outdoor setting and the play's well-known box-tree scene this isn't garden or greensward Shakespeare. Their raised stage platform makes the action visible to audiences on level lawn and other flat ground seating and there is a half-timbered looking scena which gives an upper level, central entry and side entries round the scenery, similar to an Elizabethan playhouse. It is practical rather than elegant and could (and perhaps is) used for other plays too.
Twelfth Night is one of my favourite plays. I've probably seen it more times than any other Shakespeare and used to think its delights pretty well fool-proof until one disastrous production. Andrew Normington's fast moving production certainly hit the button for an audience that had been waiting anxiously to see if the rain would stop and the performance could go on. If I'm not quite so enthusiastic perhaps it's because familiarity makes me more critical.
First congratulations to all the cast not only for coping with the elements but at producing the vocal power to overcome not only the background noise of London - very different from the quiet of most of their usual venues - but also the patter of rain on umbrellas which came into use for large parts of the earlier scenes, though fortunately things were drier later. This is an extremely smoothly flowing show, scenes almost overlapping with each other but yet clearly recognized as changing location without scenic alteration, though the text is sometimes taken at such speed that lines sometimes seem said without being thought - or perhaps they had one eye and the sky and were more concerned about the audience getting a soaking?
Clever cutting and redistribution of lines makes some unusual doubling possible. While different actors play twins Viola (Shaun McKee) and Sebastian (Mark Martin) the latter doubles Andrew Aguecheek, Orsino (Mawgan Gyles) doubles Maria, Feste (Tom Micklem) Antonio and the Captain who rescues Viola, Sir Toby (Conner Williams) the Priest and Malvolio (Paul Brendan) Curio and an Officer. One of the losses is the fight between Viola and Aguecheek, one of the gains not having to make some of Feste's more difficult quips work with a modern audience, and costume changes disguise that they are happening.
Orsino seemed a pretty cold character who rarely acknowledged those he spoke to. It was difficult to see why Viola should fall for him; but then, though Viola and Sebastian did look like twins, they were not very good-looking ones in unattractive outfits. It wasn't obvious why Antonio falls for the boy he's rescued (and that's played down anyway) nor why Olivia falls for Viola in boy's clothes as Cesario: but fall she did. Joe Marsh's sultry Olivia, twitching an agitated hand and all cow-eyed enrapture was clearly interested in much more than his pretty poetry. This is a fine comic performance that has just enough of the competent lady of the house that her steward Malvolio describes to suggest that this uncontrollable infatuation is her first love.
We get a skittish very skinny Maria (the 'buttery bar' gag is gone). The cross-gender castings make a touch of exaggeration acceptable that might not be if they were real women, but they are played for character, unlike Toby and Aguecheck who are too consciously being funny in contrast the rather dowdy-looking Malvolio. Brendan makes you sense the faithful steward, he obviously doesn't believe in spending his mistress's money on a new suit for himself! He's no fool but seems a serious fellow who seems to want his mistress' love not just his own advancement; the cruelty of his gulling is horribly apparent.
McKee's Viola makes her youth and insecurity apparent. We lose out on the poetry of her speeches to Olivia but see how conscientiously they have been prepared and how awkward she finds the situation. Orsino may have failed to fascinate me but the disguised Viola makes the depths of her feeling for him very apparent, especially when fondling 'his' master's hair as he lay against 'his' thigh and Feste sang 'Come Away Death.' Imbued with feeling and without that dreadful hat he became a very attractive Viola.
Feste, with most of his jokes cut, sometimes gets caught up in the comic overplaying (Micklem avoids it as Antonio) and has a pleasant voice for the songs. It was unkind of the director to isolate him on the upper level for the closing 'The Rain it Raineth', losing rapport with the audience so that their applause anticipated the ending. A mistake too, I felt, to open the performance with two songs sung standing in front of the stage and one from it before the cast assume their characters and start a play that opens with another piece of music. But again, perhaps this was affected by the weather. They would have been a delightful diversion for an audience taking its seats and would not then have felt like another delay before the play began.
Venues for the rest of the tour are:
Hylands House, Chelmsford; Queen's Square, Bristol; Denbigh Castle, North Wales; Arley Hall, Cheshire; Eastnor Castle nr. Ledbury; Ickworth House, Bury St Edmunds; Newstead Abbey nr. Nottingham; Broxbourne Hall; Henley Management College; Greville Theatre Club; Tyntesfield, Bristol; Ham House, Richmond; Harlech Castle; Shrewsbury Castle; Arlington Court; Waddesdon Manor nr. Aylesbury; Killerton, Devon; Trelissick, Cornwall; Kingston Lacy; Wimbourne Minster; Dyrhm Park nr. Bath; The Vyne, nr. Basingstoke; Hatfield House; Raglan Castle; Morden Hall Park; Woburn Abbey; Coughton Court; Pembroke Castle; Durham Castle
Reviewer: Howard Loxton