Sheffield Theatres and English Touring Theatre
Jonathan Munby’s fascinating production begins, not with the melancholic Orsino and "If music be the food of love, play on", but with a violent storm, reminiscent of Lear, and Feste singing "For the rain it raineth every day", which also concludes the play.
During this sequence, the cast parades through the rain, some holding umbrellas, and Orsino rips off his shirt to embrace the violence of the elements.
The set is a decaying millionaire’s mansion and, when the action of the play begins, we see the cast peering in through the broken rear windows and shutters at the back of the set, like homeless people searching for shelter, before climbing in through the windows and taking possession of the stage space.
Thereafter, the first two scenes are reversed, so we start with an account of the shipwreck and Viola’s survival, before meeting Orsino in his court.
The characters we meet are variously dysfunctional: the love-sick Orsino; Olivia, sequestered from the world in deepest mourning for her father; Viola, disguised as Caesario, lamenting the loss of her brother and confused by her growing attachment to Orsino.
Olivia’s household is in disarray. Malvolio is ineffective in reining in the drunken Sir Toby and his riotous entourage, despite his pompous disdain. The cruel punishment of Malvolio is disproportionate to his fault.
The darkness of the opening sequence is gradually alleviated by the introduction of colour. Olivia’s dress changes from deepest black to passionate crimson; the stage floor is littered with rose petals.
Music is an important mood creating element in the production. Grant Olding has composed delightful contemporary settings for Shakespeare’s songs, which are enhanced by Brian Protheroe’s (Feste’s) sensitive musicality in performing them.
There are two actors who raise the stakes in this production. Hugh Ross is a superb Malvolio, who commands the stage with a quiet authority, presents a fully rounded, realistic, convincing characterisation and gives a masterclass in how to speak Shakespeare’s verse, which will be helpful to the less experienced members of the cast.
He is completely mesmerising in the familiar ‘letter’ scene, where timing, emphasis and innuendo do full justice to the complexity and comic potential of the writing.
Brian Protheroe is equally successful as the word-mongering fool, where, again, emphasis and timing, as well as accompanying gesture and direct engagement with the audience, make Feste’s quips accessible.
This is quite a serious version of the comedy, which places emphasis on reality of characterisation, and reinforces the sexual ambiguity in the text.
This generally works well, but presents something of a problem for Milo Twomey as Andrew Aguecheek, whose appearance and behaviour is, in the first half especially, too normal to suggest ‘a foolish knight’. Since David Fielder as Sir Toby has cornered the market in drunken behaviour, Twomey is left somewhat in limbo.
The comic business surrounding the fights between Viola / Aguecheek / Sebastian is abbreviated and reined in, though in the second half of the play all of the main characters find opportunities for double takes which draw in the audience.
On a minimalist set, a wardrobe is used with great effectiveness in a number of sequences, including the incarceration of Malvolio.
It is helpful that Sebastian (Michael Benz) and the disguised Viola (Rose Reynolds) look remarkably alike. This allows for genuine surprise and wonderment in the final scene when all is revealed and resolved.
This is an unusual and intriguing production, boldly untraditional in many ways, but offering interesting new perspectives on the play.
Reviewer: Velda Harris