On the night of the 12th August, I went with a hey-ho in the wind and the rain to the Old Schools Quad of the Bodleian Library to be immersed in this effervescent and exhilarating production. The night was ideal: we entered to the sound of a storm and the shipping forecast, which was mirrored by the dramatic weather (it even rained for one scene). This was the optimum setting for this production which, by its concurrent lively physicality and visual surrealism, blurred the real and the imaginary, the pleasant and the painful, the world of Illyria and ours.
The play opens with opera from two veiled female figures singing from an archway, who are then interrupted by the piercing scream of Viola, plunging us into this production’s unique world of weirdness and chaotic confusion. These singers subversively inhabit the roles of Curio and Valentine, playing with the lovesick Orsino before his opening speech. This production seizes the play’s concept of enmeshed playfulness and cruelty and runs with it, a carnival which demolishes the boundary between the two, and challenges the audience’s responses of laughter and horror.
We are familiar with Twelfth Night’s themes of disguise and deceit, and the idea of doubles is presented with conviction and consistency in this production. Gender identity and sexuality is addressed and blurred in the bodies of many onstage, notably in the Havisham-like dressing of the female Curio and Valentine: females in this production are dangerous and fun, with a smacking of the succubine. Olivia (a madly brilliant Flora Zackon) is no longer the pure and popular beauty we are used to being shown, but a complex and ridiculous visualization of the confusion and the biting, knife-edge fun of the play, ready to lose control at any minute. She carries the shipwreck in her train, which contains a hilarious collection of junk including shoes and a bicycle light. Her dress matches the fabric of Malvolio’s sharp waistcoat and the two reflect the thematic contrast of decay and vivacity. The talented director Max Gill also suggests a sexual relationship between Sebastian and Antonio; though this is not fleshed out and made completely plausible, the effect of Joseph Allan as both Feste and Antonio highlights the presence of disguise and façade, as does the beautifully and extravagantly dressed set.
As I have mentioned and you must expect, I laughed a lot during the course of the evening. An embarrassing amount actually, as people actually turned to look at me with confused expressions (although I like to think this is just because we were all feeling confused about who we were and what we were seeing by this point). Peter Huhne as Aguecheek was absolutely glorious, and scenes between him and the wonderfully cast Andrew Laithwaite as Toby Belch were, like a well boiled egg, timed to perfection – the chemistry between the two was clear as they carried out their mischief with the energy of schoolboys, whilst Georgina Hellier as Maria was irreplaceable and incredibly versatile. Laughing as I was at their excellent physical and inevitably verbal humour, I too felt reprimanded as if by a teacher when Malvolio first catches them at their late night larks. Jordan Waller as Malvolio is genius, his deadpan face and soft Scottish accent never faltering, until he is tortured by the more sinister fool in his ‘prison’. During this scene, I noticed the audience slowly stop laughing, unsure of themselves and glancing around to try to gauge the appropriate reaction as this ridiculed man is broken, bound and humiliated. It was a fascinating response, and testament to how successful this production was in conveying the proximity of comedy and cruelty.
The score must be acknowledged: Joseph Currie as Composer has created something really exciting and intricately relevant. Dissonant motifs return accompanying flashes of cruelty in the first half, and escalate to the physical and aural violence of the second half. This sets up another contrast in the production, between consonant and discordant, never far from each other. This production pays attention to detail, valuing every line and scene, and commits to the music of Shakespeare as much as the comedy, as Joseph Allan delivers haunting and hilarious songs, and the cast joins together for songs and dances, giving variation and accessibility to the production. From Al Johnson’s fitting ‘Carnival Time’ to Leonor Jennings’ and Catriona Graffius’ beautiful incorporation of Bizet and Mozart, this play confidently jumbles time period and style, producing a dream-like cornucopia of sensory and emotional contrast and excess.
For two and a half highly entertaining hours the characters and audience alike struggled with questions of what we are and what we would, each one called to make of it, as the alternative title suggests, ‘What You Will’. This is a really good production – find a way to see it.
OUDS’s Twelfth Night will be running at the Southwark Playhouse in London from 20th to 23rd August