The cases of mistaken identity that fuel the comedy in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night are by no means the preserve of this particular genre of theatre, if, for example, one is prepared to consider the endemic use of fake IDs by teenagers in nightclubs across Britain. But perhaps there is something even more profound to be said for setting this play in a nightclub, and the directors of this production do a great job of bringing this to light.
This production was exceedingly well presented: from the minute we took our seats in the theatre, we were gradually drawn in to the atmosphere of the nightclub in every sense. Certainly, the anticipatory phase is a part of the audience’s dramatic experience to which most theatre directors give some attention, and rightly so; however, it was particularly refreshing to appreciate the extent to which the twenty minutes preceding the start of the action were harnessed by the directors as time to truly allow us to acclimatise rather than to bleakly look at our phones. The dramatic crescendo of on-stage activity, music and lighting was perfectly measured to herald the entrance of the main characters. Despite the scene having been set up so masterfully by the beginning, from this point onwards it was, at times, difficult to properly contextualise the action as it unfolded. On a purely practical level, the surroundings of the nightclub provided a clever means of establishing various points of reference, and especially enabling smooth scene changes and added tension at key moments with the use of some unmistakable thumping beats. On the downside, the staging and use of the set were at times somewhat chaotic and ran the risk of leaving the audience disoriented, sometimes in a physical sense but also in terms of making sense of the relevance and purpose of the various components of the nightclub.
However, following the typical clubbing experience that takes us along the path of increased levels of drunkenness, disorientation, progressively blurred vision and muffled beats, the directors of Twelfth Night brought about a much greater sense of orientation in the second half, leading us to the climax of the action. Slowly but surely, the nightclub setting started to make a lot of sense, which was remarkable given that the plot itself was going in the other direction. The climax of the action, the point at which everyone’s masks slipped, when every truth, fallacy and mistaken identity was laid bare for all to see, or the point at which the club lights come on at the close of the night, was expertly choreographed, providing the perfect backdrop to a classic Shakespearean comedic resolution. If only the nightclub thread had been more carefully woven throughout the entire production.
Slowly but surely, the nightclub setting started to make a lot of sense, which was remarkable given that the plot itself was going in the other direction.
Given the challenges associated with setting Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in a nightclub (in addition to some obvious advantages), this production successfully balanced the rowdy with the mellow, a tricky juxtaposition of the dance floor and the smoking area. Above all, this was well reflected in the casting: Chloe Taylor delivered a delightfully warm and delicate portrayal of Viola (or was that Cesario? Or Sebastian?). Christopher Page and Stas Butler commanded the dance floor in both voice and action, establishing an unmistakable and iconic presence behind which the riotous mob would follow. The crowd made a good job of humiliating and ridiculing the pompous Malvolio, played by Robin Ferguson, complete with yellow leggings. To this end, effective use was made of the chorus to the extent that the audience itself was made to feel part of the mob, tempted to also reach for their phones to take a snap of the drama or perhaps even to grab a selfie with Orsino, played by Tom Fisher. Above all, however, the camera flashes and limelight followed Esme Sanders in her hysterical portrayal of Olivia, who lived up to her fame from start to finish.
Like many good Shakespearean comedies, Twelfth Night is a confusing, disorienting and entertaining case of mistaken identity and of dramatic juxtapositions of character. This is not unlike many good nights in Cellar or, if you prefer, Bridge (a better setting for tragedy, if you ask us). Therefore, whatever criticisms may arise from aspects of the setting are overcome by the fact that the production was at once set in an environment that was relatable to the audience, into which we were constantly drawn, but with some alcohol, good music and funky lights leading us up to the paradise of Illyria at the same time. For that, we certainly can’t complain.