BritishTheatre

Published on

November 22, 2014

REVIEW: Twelfth Night, Richmond Theatre ✭✭✭

By

stephencollins

Michael Benz in Twelfth Night, English Touring Theatre

Michael Benz as Sebastian in Twelfth Night. Photo: Mark Douet Twelfth Night

English Touring Theatre

Richmond Theatre (On Tour)

19 November 2014

3 Stars

At the very heart of Shakespeare's romantic comedy masterpiece, Twelfth Night, sit the notions of cross-dressing and mistaken identity. Shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother, Viola assumes male guise and takes a position in Count Orsino's Court where she goes under the name Cesario. The Count finds himself strangely attracted to Cesario unaware he is a she. This effect is compounded by the task Orsino sets Cesario - to woo the Lady Olivia on his behalf. Cesario turns out to be a complete failure at that task, but Olivia does fall for a suitor: Cesario. So, one woman dressed as a man, bring pursued ardently by a woman who thinks she is a man, while another man, who also thinks she is a man, is falling for that man. Cross-dressing and a deal of hilarity.

In Jonathan Munby's production of Twelfth Night, now playing at the Richmond Theatre as part of its UK tour (a co-production between Sheffield Theatres and English Touring Theatre) there is a resounding emphasis on the "cross" in cross-dressing. Both Viola/Cesario and Olivia spend an inordinate amount of time shouting, yelling, snarling, being loud. Quite why is never clear. And neither are the words or the sense of the words lost in the loudness.

That said, Munby seems to have a clear vision for this production: to emphasise the melancholic aspects of the piece, to be more reflective, possibly, even, to look at some characters a different way.

Feste becomes a kind of narrator of the piece. He enters the darkened stage through the auditorium and, guitar in hand, finds a place in the light on stage and starts singing a very mournful tune. The rest of the cast appear behind him, almost as if summoned by him, and there is an effective tableau which promises intrigue. Then the play begins.

Orsino (Jake Fairbrother) is clearly suffering when we first see him, possibly even a little unhinged. He rips off his shirt and goes to stand in the rain. So, Munby effectively establishes him as at least lovesick and perhaps deranged. He follows this through with an odd, almost playful, certainly idiosyncratic, romp through the famous "If Music Be The Food Of Life" scene and then, quite unaccountably, makes to kiss Cesario during the first time the audience sees them together, just as Orsino charges Cesario with the task of wooing Olivia.

Clearly, then, Orsino is confused. But not in the way it usually plays out, where he slowly realises over the course of the play that he is falling deeply in love with the boy who serves him. No. Here, his confusion, his unpredictability is in spades from the outset. And simply whirls into and through confusion until, finally, he takes Ceasrio, the boy he loves, as his wife. One gets the feeling that the marriage might not be a happy one - not the least because Olivia, although married to Sebastian by this time, can't seem to keep her hands off Viola, the woman she loved, thinking she was a he.

The road for Sebastian, too, is very different from the usual way of playing the tale. At first it seemed odd when Michael Benz' Sebastian kissed Ross Walton's Antonio with such vigour in the first scene in which we meet the pair. Antonio pressed the kiss, wanted it to last longer, but Sebastian puckered up first, and without regret. But the pay off for that, a long time coming, occurred in Act Two, with the painful final parting of the pair - Benz puts both longing, apology and guilt into the parting gaze and in the moment Sebastian has to himself to consider what he has done: marry Olivia and break Antonio's heart.

So, just as Olivia abandons her vows of chastity in favour of Cesario, so Sebastian abandons his love with Antonio in favour of Olivia - there is a moment in the final Act where Orsino mistakes Sebastian for Viola, and it was difficult not to wonder if, instead of the usual laugh because of the mistake, he would stick with Sebastian (it being a boy he fell for) and let Olivia have Viola as she so clearly seems to prefer.

What is most puzzling in this production is that the part of the narrative which is usually melancholic is pretty much stripped of that feeling: the sorry tale of the stuck-up, pretentious Malvolio who is cruelly deceived and them imprisoned by Sir Toby Belch and his gang of cohorts, does not here have the whiff of tragedy about it. It's not particularly funny either, but the points where the heart strings might be pulled are skipped by curiously.

Feste emphasises the sad clown aspect of his character throughout, so much so that if he had started to strike up Puccini's Vesti la giubba it would not have seemed out of place. The real clown here is Sir Andrew Aguecheek, although there is good support from Maria in that department too. Sir Toby seems lost in a complete haze of bile, alcohol and splenetic scenery chewing to provide many laughs.

And, again, this has the effect that another of the usual melancholic moments of the play, the point where Sir Toby turns on Sir Andrew, with venom, is lost. Instead, Munby provides, against Feste's final, melancholic, minstrel moment an image of the resigned Sir Andrew packed and leaving for home and another of Sir Toby and his new bride, Maria, leaving Olivia's estate for conjugal whatever, bliss or otherwise.

Thus, by the end of this production, you have two apparently/possibly/probably gay men (one of whom might be insane) married to two women, one of whom lusts after the other married woman; three shattered men; one likely to be unhappy married couple; and a clown who could be channelling Rufus Wainwright at his darkest. It's not the usual triumphant finale for Twelfth Night.

But you also have something else you don't usually have: a focus on the tragic aspect of love. Each of Orsino, Olivia and Malvolio are driven to distraction, at least, or near insanity by unexpected events which strike at the core of their nature: Malvolio, by a letter he thinks Olivia has written for him; Olivia, by the beguiling woman-disguised-as-youth who teaches her about herself; Orsino, by the same beguiling woman-disguised-as-youth for the same reason. Indeed, Sebastian too seems slightly wild after his coupling with Olivia, perhaps a reflection of his self-awareness: that Antonio, after all, was not for him. Love, or the chance of it, changes each fundamentally.

There is another emphasis here too, a different trio punished by love: Antonio (because of his love for and trust in Sebastian), Sir Andrew (because of his, albeit platonic, love for and trust in Sir Toby) and Malvolio (because of his love for Olivia and his belief she wants him).

The alternative title to Twelfth Night is What You Will, and, more than anything else, that seems Munby's inspiration here. He has, with real determination, found a new way to approach the text; deliberately emphasised different aspects of the story to fundamentally change the experience. This is not a joyful night at the theatre, and although some of the acting and verse-speaking is lamentable, there is a lot to think about and muse over. Certainly the first-timers in the audience around me seemed to enjoy the spectacle, the elaborate stage pictures (there is a running motif of red rose petals bursting out of unlikely places) and the darker, broody atmosphere. Perhaps that is to be expected when The Walking Dead and The Fall are hit television series?

Milo Twomey is in fine form as Sir Andrew, a tall, lank, woebegotten soul with silly clothes, a desperate need to be popular and an almost child-like glee about naughty things. Twomey establishes the character easily and soundly, and mines each situation for decent laughs. He provided the comic compass here.

As Sebastian, Michael Benz combines clear understanding of the verse with a robust and complete characterisation, producing the dramatic turn of the night. Warm, sexy and discombobulated, this Sebastian has a dual nature which reflects his status as Viola's twin. The look of wild, newly discovered frenzy/excitement on Benz' face after he beds Olivia is telling and convincing, completely and neatly foreshadowing the haunting moment when he will shatter Antonio's heart. A new take on Sebastian, but a thought-through and successful one.

It is a pleasure to listen to Hugh Ross' mellifluous Malvolio, every word is clear and given attention, but the character is much too likeable at the start of the play which makes understanding the spiteful actions against him of the other characters very difficult. Malicious and vile is how Malvolio needs to come across - at least from the perspective of Sir Toby, Maria and Fabian. Ross does not manage even haughty indifference, so the joy to be had from the box tree scene and the cross-garter scene never arrives. And nor does the sense of injustice when he is jailed.

Jake Fairbrother makes a handsome Orsino, complete with wild eyes and lost faculties. He has a rich, luxurious voice which could have been put to much better use, exploring the lyrical aspects of the verse more delicately and radiantly, but he certainly provides the out-of-control Count that Munby counts on. Ross Walton makes an excellent and passionate Antonio and, unusually, manages to make him a complete and rounded character who is treated worse than anyone in this version.

There were aspects to the performances of David Fielder (Sir Toby) and Brian Protheroe (Feste) which are enjoyable and clever, but neither really works as a whole. Feste is envisaged here as a very musical creature but Protheroe is more actor than singer; if it were otherwise, this Feste might have been quite something. Fielder eats or slurs or masticates most of his language, like some over-sized drunken dwarf from another place and time, wearing incomprehensibility like a shroud. He is at his best with Twomey’s Sir Andrew and in his scenes with Dona Croll’s inconsistently pleasurable Maria.

Jonathan Christie shines as Valentine and the Second Officer – focussed, great use of voice and understanding of the text, a crisp, assured performance. Christopher Chilton and Colm Gormley do good work as the Sea Captain/Priest and Fabian respectively.

Shakespeare wrote both Olivia and Viola/Cesario as gifts of roles and, in the right hands, they can be the star turns in Twelfth Night. Not here. Rebecca Johnson seems to think Olivia is Katherine from Taming of the Shrew and Rose Reynolds prefers shrill insistence to the nuanced turn of a woman playing a man and all that brings with it. But these must be the performances Munby wants from his leading ladies, as surprising as that is.

Colin Richmond’s faded estate set design evokes The Cherry Orchard and assists in the overall notion of melancholia. There are some clever tricks – particularly good is the way the cupboard becomes Malvolio’s lonely prison. The use of the rose petal motif is not so integral to the overall design to be inspired, but it does add some colour (and a traditional concept for representing romance) to the presentation. His costume choices are excellent. Chris Davey lights everything cleverly and well, if somewhat predictably, and Grant Olding’s music assists in attaining and sustaining the reflective, depressive and thoughtful retrospective mood of the piece.

A deal of what happens here grates – a case of grateness being thrust upon one – but that is only part of the picture. This is an intriguing and not wholly successful take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Replacing joy with sorrow seems, at first, a surprising choice, but there is sufficient textual justification for the approach. Munby certainly has stamped his firm directorial vision over Shakespeare’s characters and stories and while it might not provoke as many laughs as other productions of this play, his work certainly provokes unique responses and thinking.

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ABOUT BRITISHTHEATRE

BritishTheatre.com
Opening Night Media Ltd
3rd Floor, 80 St. Martin’s Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2N 4AA

The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..