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Cesario is, of course, the name that Viola adopts when she dresses as a man in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, modelling herself on her twin brother Sebastian. Like the other twins in Shakespeare’s plays, these two find a happy ending but that was not the case with the dramatist's own real-life twins Hamnet and Judith and it is they who are the subject of Bryony Lavery’s new play, commissioned for the World Shakespeare Festival 2012.
It is set in the garden of the Shakespeares’ house in 1596, the year before they moved up-market to New Place. That may be before Twelfth Night was written but this is a work of the imagination not history and perhaps their father told them stories using ideas that were in his head. Lavery’s eleven-year-old Judith certainly knows the names of the Twelfth Night twins and has heard of a country called Illyria, and she likes dressing up in her brother’s clothes.
This is a play for children, for young performers and audiences from 7 upwards, and it is performed by actors drawn from London schools and youth theatres. It opens with a jolly ensemble number from the whole company accompanying themselves on kitchen and garden utensils and drum skins to delights it young audience with a moment when they all but one turn bums to the audience and the exception provides the raspberry sound effect.
Lola Turner’s feisty little Judith, dressed in her brother’s red velvet doublet against their mother’s wishes, doesn’t see why she should stay indoors at mother’s knee. She foul-mouths her elder sister (Charlotte Plucknett) refusing to go indoors and insulting her with the accusation that she was the reason father had to marry mother.
Judith wants the freedom that a boy has and insists that other youngsters, like Wattle and Daub, another pair of twins apprenticed to a local builder, should call her Cesario and treat her as a gentleman. Played by Ayodeji Ijishakin and Sam Sikiru, this pair provides some slapstick but, smile though we may at Judith’s antics, this isn’t a happy-ending comedy.
Another pair of Stratford twins turns up, the apothecary’s children, Arthur (Darrieal Ramku) and tongue-tied Martha (Beata Koczynska), who cannot be made to address her as Cesario despite Judith dosing her with one of their remedies to loose her tongue. More importantly, they have physic which could help her brother Hamnet (Noah Dunbar), now indoors confined to his sickbed, even though she has cut her finger to offer blood to help him.
A passing family of mountebanks bring new experiences to try if you fork out for them, strong drink and new-fangled tobacco, and then, at greater cost, provide a spell to effect a cure.
Cesario / Judith has done his / her best, but Hamnet’s departure cannot be prevented and his spirit hands his red suit on to her in an elegiac ending. This 40-minute play is a touching presentation of tomboy feminism and twinned closeness and a reminder of the personal sadness that may lie behind the happy reunions of the twins in Shakespeare’s plays.
Director Anthony Banks has bonded his young company together and, despite a little initial nervousness occasionally showing, they are enjoying themselves in their sumptuus costumes, which adds to our enjoyment, and Lola Turner’s Judith is a remarkably sustained performance.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton