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Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
The Faction Theatre Company
New Diorama Theatre

Faction Theatre Company's Twelfth Night
Faction Theatre Company's Twelfth Night

Mark Leipacher’s fast-paced production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of separated twins Viola and Sebastian, cross-dressing, gulled pride and confused identities has many inventive touches. It is played with enthusiastic energy and delighted a first night audience, especially a large party of students or older schoolgirls.

Performances are, for the most part, straightforwardly naturalistic, taking the verse and language in their stride and taking every opportunity to share feelings and dilemmas with the audience, but this is paired with a conscious theatricality not just in the physicality of the directorial concepts that feature in this company’s work but in the acceptance of its “love at first sight” logic. Never before have I been so conscious of Viola telling the audience she’s fallen for Orsino whose court she’s only just joined pretending to be a boy, or Olivia, the countess Orsino sends her off to woo on his behalf, making the same declaration about Olivia’s pretend Cesario.

This is a world where we are to take love lightheartedly. Leipacher knocks sentimentality on the head. Viola’s romantic paean “Make me a willow cabin at your gate” emphasises the way it sends up flowery speeches, and even the speech in which she tells Orsino of her own love through the tale of her imagined sister is overwhelmed by a comic instinctive urge to kiss.

What is lacking in the playing of these lovers is any charismatic or erotic charge. You don’t really see why any of them should fall for each other. Shai Matheson’s Orsino, jumping on a courtier’s back, is just another boisterous boy given to shouting. (He is not alone; several in this cast veer between shouts and risking inaudibility.) Perhaps he wants Olivia’s fortune, but we are not given any motivational subtext, unless we are to see his boyish attraction to Cesario as suggesting a gay man in need of marriage as a “beard”. But it is difficult to see why Cesario should so excite Derval Mellett’s Olivia either.

Kate Sawyer’s Viola stays very girlish, her eager-jutting chin hints that she may enjoy the extra freedom the male disguise as Cesario gives her, but she makes no attempt at boyishness beyond one sexual gesture intended to add a bawdy double entendre when least expected and pinning her long hair up. Apart from identical dress, there is little attempt to create the “one-face, one-voice” likeness with her twin Sebastian. Tom Radford gives him a brashness that belies the warm sentiment he shows towards his sister, an opportunist who can’t believe his luck when offered instant marriage that brings wealth and status. Is Leipacher suggesting that rather than a happy ending the final pairings end up with people getting what they deserve? Though, in fact, as with all Shakespeare’s re-union endings, you can’t help that final rush of warm sentiment and welling happy tears.

Colour and bright light help comedy on its way, and the decision to play against the theatre’s unrelieved black walls and lit, it seemed, with a wary eye on the electricity meter, such tongue in cheek helps push the mood in the right direction. Lachlan McCall’s excellent, rather nonchalant Feste, complete with red-nose to clarify his clowning role, is relieved of some of those more arcane jokes that often stick out like sore thumbs and delivers his songs delightfully in Thomas Whitelaw’s banjo-accompanied settings. This production keeps him in the action for the trick played on the Countess’s steward Malvolio, cutting Fabian and giving Feste his lines.

Of the plotters of that trick, Richard Delaney’s Toby Belch is no middle-aged sot but a young roisterer with a quirky manner and comic timing suggesting a reborn Dick Emery. From their first scene together Leonie Hill makes it clear how much her charming Maria cares for him, and the Andrew Aguecheek of Jonny McPherson is more high-spirited hooray-Henry than total jackass. Gareth Fordred’s Malvolio is no fool either, though foolish he may be. His strong rapport with the audience puts them on his side. His yellow-stockinged entrance, when it comes, may look ridiculous but you don’t really want to laugh.

Mark Leipacher has created a stunning image for Malvolio in prison: a stark face surrounded by a multitude of restraining hands, and he establishes the night time for Toby’s roistering with a bed sheet that covers the stage from which his characters emerge. After the first scene of the play he turns Orsino’s courtiers into the waves that deliver Viola to the shore and he turns actors into a tree for the conspirators to hide behind to watch Malvolio. Caught in front of it when he turns they quickly form a similar tree—not logical but a good gag theatrically.

But logic is not what drives this production. To open with a cast folding piles of cloth or clothing on the ground suggests actors preparing to take on their roles but I was at a loss as to why, when they assume the characters of Orsino’s court, they should appear to be doing their laundry at the village pump or local wash-house. Orsino wears what looks like an RAF jacket, Malvolio what could be an army tunic: are we to take it we are in the aftermath of war, the conflict in which Sebastian’s rescuer Antonio fought as their enemy only recently over? Or is Orsino an airline pilot and Malvolio Olivia’s security officer in his Securicor uniform? More importantly, Malvolio has a wounded, or perhaps a wooden, leg. War heroes both, perhaps, officer and NCO? It certainly helps to reinforce sympathy for Malvolio and somehow makes more acceptable the yellow stocking pulled over it that is his response to what he thinks are Olivia’s dress directions.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton