The end of this Trinity term sees two college garden productions of Twelfth Night. Oriel’s, playing from Tuesday to Thursday of 8th week, follows hot on the heels of Wadham’s in 7th week. Yet, not only is Oriel’s distinct in concept from Wadham’s disco interpretation, but it also offers its audiences the attraction of supporting a fantastic Oxford charity while enjoying an evening of comedy, cross-dressing and Pimms –it was by ballot decided that all proceeds should go to support Oxford Homeless Pathways.
The production is to be set amidst the glamour of a 1920s aristocratic house party. Yet despite the dickie bows and cravats of the poster and trailer, it won’t be all Bertie Wooster-esque high jinks. The director, Chloe Cheung, informs me that the shadow of the Great War is key to her interpretation. Drawing on the centenary interest in the war and the Downton craze, it also makes more than a nod to the RSC’s recent success with Christopher Luscombe’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado about Nothing that were set on either side of the war, in and around a stately home.
This choice of setting is not merely derivative, but will, I am promised, illuminate and amplify this famously ambiguous comedy: an awareness of post-war bereavement and disillusionment contextualises and heightens the mournful tenor of the opening scenes; the homoerotic ties between Antonio and Sebastien are to be seen as a result of the common male experience in the trenches, and the superficiality of some of the play’s heterosexual love as indicative of struggles to readjust to gendered, peacetime, social existence; and yet, whilst the elite few might toy with sexual liberation, the Malvolio storyline exposes the survival of an uncompromising class system.
This all might sound rather heavy-going, but this Twelfth Night looks set to provide a highly festive night of theatre. The performance location – Oriel’s beautiful, floral front quad – can’t fail to impress. Festooned with bunting and filled with yellow-stockings related hilarity, it should prove a perfect venue for a wonderfully typical Oxford summer entertainment.
From the couple of scenes from Act I that I got to see in rehearsal, Rachel Evans promises much as Viola. With an erect stance and deferentially inclined head, she makes a convincing serving man to Orsino, but her highly expressive eyes give an enticing insight into the woman and the passions beneath the disguise. I look forward to seeing Evans’s depiction of Viola’s growing struggle to contain her emotions.
Jerome Foster’s Orsino makes a good foil to Evans’s deliberate restraint. Melodramatic and camply aristocratic, he swoons at the end of his first scene. His long-suffering attendants roll their eyes as he declaims to the audience. The impression is of a man more in love with the idea of being in love than with the supposed object of his affections, Olivia. Hopefully, this is to allow room for a more sincere and touching romance to develop with Viola.
The glimpse I was afforded of rehearsals was tantalisingly brief. Yet, it was sufficient to see that Cheung has gathered a strong ensemble. Occasionally, delivery of the verse was rather heavy; and sometimes diction was a little poor. However, I am sure that the latter will improve as soon as the cast start rehearsing outdoors. All round there was energy and enthusiasm, which should hopefully result in an engaging and stylish production of this comic classic and a sizeable donation to a worthy cause.
Twelfth Night will be performed at Oriel College until Thursday 18th June, at 7.30pm.