Shakespeare dance party

28 Apr

Twelfth Night

Blue Elephant, 28.04.17

Twelfth Night, with its cross-dressing and pranks and musical interludes, is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays – consequently, this production follows on the heels of the much grander-scale one at the National Theatre. It makes a lot of similar choices – modern dress, for a start, and regendering Feste the clown. It also, like the NT production, picks up and runs with the idea that ‘The Elephant’ – the inn where Antonio tells Sebastian to get lodgings – is a gay bar, where debauchery is encouraged. In this production by Original Impact, the Elephant bar fuses with the Blue Elephant theatre so the whole production is set in a world of drunkenness and festivity. There is a palpable holiday atmosphere, reinforced by the costume choices – bright shirts, Feste’s fabulous coloured trousers, Maria’s flip flops. On the back wall, ‘To beer or not to beer’ is daubed in fluorescent paint.

 

Threaded between interludes of upbeat music and dance breaks is a fairly conventional version of Twelfth Night: twins in blue polo shirts and backwards baseball caps wash up on the shores of Illyria and cause a series of romantic misunderstandings. The initial shipwreck develops from a dance routine, which takes us quite abruptly from the festive bar setting to Viola mourning her brother’s apparent death. All of the actors sing or play instruments (or both) and when not included in a scene they often retire to the corner and become part of the band. When Feste, Toby and Andrew spy on Malvolio, they hide amongst the band – this allows for some fun physical comedy. Orsino, in his well-known opening soliloquy, directs the music, demanding repetitions of a particular strain. At other times, the band seem to function as puppetmasters, controlling stage action – Andi Jashari’s beatboxing seems to have an intoxicating effect on Malvolio. Instead of the folky settings of Shakespearean lyrics featured in so many Twelfth Nights, this production borrows popular songs – Feste’s cover of ‘I Will Always Love You,’ with support from the drunk Toby and Andrew, is a good choice for late-night caterwauling.

Twelfth Night Image small

Despite significant cuts, the production runs to nearly two hours at a lively pace. The cast of nine only requires minimal doubling: the character Fabian has been absorbed into Feste’s part, and the same actor, Sian Eleanor Green, also plays the captain and Antonio. This generally works well, with the exception of the final scene, when Fabian’s conciliatory explanation of the prank on Malvolio – that it was only a joke, and not meant cruelly – and Feste’s much bitterer account, reminding him of past grievances, are delivered in sequence by the same actor. This is a shame, because it erases some subtlety and sort of dismisses the sinister mood present in the final moments of the play. Some suspension of disbelief is also required when the production’s patently irresponsible Toby and Andrew take responsibility for Antonio’s arrest – given the shortage of spare actors to play law enforcers.

 

The cast show varying levels of comfort with speaking Shakespearean language – Katie Turner, as Viola, is engaging and likeable in a challenging part but occasionally stumbles on the verse. Green, in her multiple roles, is the most relaxed and creative performer, and her cheery Feste is unpredictable and a lot of fun to watch. Dinos Psychogios gets some well-deserved laughs as the dim-witted hedonist Andrew Aguecheek, and Timothy Weston’s Malvolio preens convincingly and shows off a pair of yellow stockings to great effect. (I found myself wondering what percentage of yellow tights sold in the UK end up worn by a Malvolio?)

 

Original Impact’s production scores highly for physical comedy and music, though their approach privileges the festive energy of the play over its more mournful and sinister elements.

 

Timothy Weston as Malvolio and the cast of Twelfth Night, Blue Elephant Theatre. Photograph by Sam Dunstan.

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