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Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Grassroots Shakespeare London
The Lounge, Leicester Square Theatre

Ellie Nunn

Emma Rice, the new artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, finds that some Shakespeare plays are “like medicine”: they need streamlining to “keep them fresh” or they make her “very sleepy and then suddenly I want to listen to The Archers”.

What a relief, then, to get back to "grass-roots" with this terrific production of Twelfth Night which needs no concepts, gimmicks, sets, props, updating or script rewrites to tell its tale with a directness, relevance and warmth that is utterly winning. All that Grassroots Shakespeare London requires to turn mystery into magic is an absolute commitment to Shakespeare’s language, strong colours and music, ensemble energy and enthusiasm and some characterful eye-brows.

The tiny Lounge at the Leicester Square Theatre, adorned with simply a backdrop of drapes and banners which evoke a proscenium, is transformed into an Elizabethan draftsman’s sketch. And, in this small stage-space, Grassroots both reminded and astonished me that Shakespeare can, through comedy, chaos and confusion, portray human dilemmas and decisions with seemingly effortless clarity and sincerity. Here, we had the whole spectrum of humanity’s merits, flaws and feelings: tenderness to vulgarity, selflessness to self-regard, joy to despair.

The company performs with immediacy and vigour, immediately engaging its audience through the vibrancy of its opening song. Entrances and exits are fluid and, after an opening thunderstorm light-show, Andrew Peregrine’s lighting design conveyed us from scene to scene with swiftness and subtlety.

As Viola/Cesario, Ellie Nunn is a perfect portrait of adolescent gaucherie, vulnerability, confidence and charm. Possessed of both acuity of intellect and unbridled emotion, this Viola’s instinct for self-preservation is strong but constantly challenged by the upwelling of sentiment. Despatched to deliver Orsino’s ring to Olivia, the besotted ‘Cesario’ indulgently admires it as it adorned her own finger; overcome with feeling, his/her avowal of loyalty blossoms into an impassioned and unrestrained physical embrace, as the page Cesario launches himself at his beloved—and alarmed—Count with unrestrained zest.

Making her West End Shakespeare debut, Nunn is evidently unfazed by the prospect of following in parental footsteps (her mother, Imogen Stubbs starred in the 1996 film of the play, directed by her father Sir Trevor Nunn—and the latter was in the audience on the night I attended). Despite the inherent artifice of the play, this is a performance of beguiling artlessness. There is no straining for effect, just a joy in the language which is conveyed with every word. My only, miniscule, proviso would be that Nunn does not intimate the sadness beneath the surface—but then this is a production which prioritises sunshine over sorrow.

Tamaryn Payne is a flighty, edgy Lady Olivia, all nerves, excitability and high spirits. She does not seem unduly troubled by the recent demise of her brother and father; indeed, her grief seems more an excuse to evade Orsino’s amorous designs than genuine dejection. Olivia’s girly crush on Cesario is delightfully instantaneous and all-consuming, but, as is the way with teenage obsessions, it proves malleable and adaptable, and Olivia is happy to transfer her affections to Kit Loyd’s Sebastian—at two feet taller than Nunn, an improbable twin—at the close.

The errant knights, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, are a delightful, and harmless, dissolute duo. John Pickard does not overdo the comic capers as Belch, portraying the eupeptic rascal with a healthy balance of bravado and benevolence. The unworldliness of Benjamin Bonar’s Sir Andrew is tempered with a dash of cheeky flirtatiousness that charmed the audience.

Richard Soames’s Feste is certainly no fool; his firm, sweet voice is accompanied by a quick wit. His music infuses the play with depth and inference and is both exuberant and gentle. Feste’s tender strumming underscores the romantic encounters, reminding one of Orsino’s command, “If music be the food of love, play on…”

Dressed in constrictive black, Jim Conway’s Malvolio presents a dour contrast to his fellows’ warm crimsons, lilacs, oranges and purples and his yellow star-crossed garters sound a sour note, for once surmounting the staleness of a well-worn theatrical cliché. Conway’s diction is fastidious and precise, barely withholding his peevish pettiness. Malvolio’s description of Cesario—“not yet old enough for a man, nor young/ enough for a boy, as a squash is before ‘tis a peas-/ Cod, or a codling when ‘tis almost an apple”—as the latter entreats Olivia on his master’s behalf, is deliciously dry.

In the letter scene, Conway’s icy lips are coaxed then compelled into a hilarious pained smile: an excruciating rictus topped with pinched nostrils and an incipient fire burning in the eye. Love or lunacy, who could tell? But, whatever trauma and humiliation this Malvolio bears, it is clear from his manic visage at his final exit that his self-love survives intact.

Emily Jane Kerr is an appealingly honest and direct Maria. And, Louis Labovitch’s Orsino is undoubtedly heavy of soul, though prone to the odd indulgence in melodramatic self-pity.

This is an utterly entrancing ensemble performance whose infectious joy brought a smile to every face and a light to every eye. It may not concern itself with the darker or more troublesome aspects of Twelfth Night—such as the authenticity of the rapid marriages at the conclusion—but it wisely does not risk an attempt to unravel the mysteries of Love and Imagination, preferring to beguile us with ‘what you will’.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour