Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Propeller
Hampstead Theatre

Joseph Chance (Viola, right) and Ben Allen (Olivia) in Twelfth Night Credit: Manuel Harlan

Actresses have been complaining for a long time that there are not enough roles for them and Ed Hall’s all-male Propeller came in for some flack last year precisely because it is an all-male company.

In Shakespeare’s day, the women’s parts were played by boys and young men. Today we expect to see actresses playing the great Shakespearean female roles and the advantage of this is that when they get into disguise as men, audiences are always aware they are still woman under the male attire.

But when Joseph Chance plays Cesario in Propeller’s production, you do not see Viola underneath. Chance may sit demurely like a woman, but when he is talking and walking he always remains a man and the charm of the play is lost. More surprisingly, there is no sexual ambiguity and not a whiff of homosexuality.

One of the play’s funniest scenes is when Malvolio finds a letter which persuades him that Olivia is in love with him and he is observed reading it by the perpetrators of the hoax. Here the actors, hiding behind the tiny box trees, and some of them pretending to be statues and screeching gulls, completely upstage Chrys Miles’s Malvolio. It becomes their scene rather than his and what Miles is actually reading out loud and saying becomes secondary to the antics going on behind him.

Similarly, in the scene when Malvolio is meant to arrive in cross-gartered yellow stockings to woo Olivia, his appearance is so vulgar as to be ridiculous.

Two performances stand out: Gary Shelford’s excellent Maria (who also tap-dances!) and Liam O’Brien’s Irish Feste, who adopts the Reverend Ian Paisley’s voce when he is humiliating Malvolio.

Propeller’s Twelfth Night is playing in tandem with Propeller’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch