Twelfth Night @ Novello Theatre , London

cast list
Peter Bygott
Eke Chukwu
Richard Cordery
Meg Fraser
Diveen Henry
Frances Jeater
Barnaby Kay
John McKay
Forbes Masson
Aislin McGuckian
Neil McKinven
Alan Morrissey
Christopher Obi
Barrie Palmer
Christopher Robert
Gurpreet Singh
Sally Tatum
Kevin Trainor
Clive Wood

directed by
Micahel Boyd
Sitting in the newly refurbished Novello (nee Strand) Theatre pondering the austere set for Twelfth Night, I was somewhat surprised to be disturbed in my reverie by the sight of a large piece of painted black wood, no doubt left over from the redecoration, being passed in puzzlement down the row in front of me.

Perhaps this was a deliberate ploy of the producers to bring the play physically to the audience – after all, what does the shipwreck that catalyses events in Illyria do if not produce its own debris? Unfortunately, a motley collection of darkly shaded flotsam and jetsam is the best way of describing this rather confused and confusing production.

Perhaps there are some deliberate echoes of the origins of twelfth night, where norms and expectations are reversed, in Michael Boyd’s eclectic directorial choices? The play is, after all, subtitled “What you will”.

Sadly, the connections are lost somewhere along the way, making many of his choices ambiguous and bringing uncertainty rather than clarity to the staging of Shakespeare’s most pantomime of plays.

Why, for example, are shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian dressed like a cross between the Blue Meanies and Michael Stipe, with their odd eye shadow and 50’s-style quiffs and jeans? Why are Malvolio’s “yellow stockings and cross-garter’d” reinterpreted as Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill costume, complete with motorcycle helmet? And impressive as it is, why does everything get lowered and raised into the flies, yet still remain in view to the audience? The evocation of the shipwreck by dropping the boat vertically from the ceiling is imaginative and technically brilliant, but what does it all mean?

Perhaps I am being terribly flat-headed about all this. After all, the post-show discussion in the bar was full of speculation about the interpretation, and perhaps it is ever thus. The trouble is that when technique swamps telling the story, I cannot help but feel that the strengths of Shakespeare’s writing are being overlooked. Are we all so jaded that a good story clearly told is not enough? When did the gravy become more important than the meat?

There are some highlights. The Act One Scene One set piece is well conceived and, above all, funny, with Barnaby Kay’s lovesick Duke Orsino looking like a rock star having the biggest comedown of his life. Equally, the interaction between Clive Wood’s Sir Toby Belch and John MacKay’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is enormously entertaining, as it should be, although they are let down by a Maria played by Meg Fraser who is more Presbyterian nun than bawdy wench.

This is, at heart, where I think Boyd gets it wrong. The supporting “downstairs” characters – in particular Feste, the jester – are too dark.

This not only takes most the joy of the play away, but also makes the pace ponderous when the comedy is laden down with its inner meaning. The brilliance of Shakespeare is that it is all there in the language if you care to listen – but surely Will’s intention was to play it light, tingeing the comedy with tragedy rather than smothering it?

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