Saturday, January 13, 2007

Theatre Review : Twelfth Night - Propeller - Old Vic (dir Edward Hall 05/01/07)

The stage is draped in shrouds, like Miss Havisham's Wedding Feast. Slowly, as, the drapes are removed, we discover that Duke Orsino has been there motionless all the time. He calls for music - strange ethereal music wells up, using voice and violin, guitar and tibetan bowls. Meanwhile, masked apparitions appear around the characters like a dumb chorus.

This startling opening scene exemplifies the production, visually and musically stunning throughout, although at times one cannot help but think that Shakespeare's play has been left behind by the invention.

Propeller is famously an all-male company, which means that all Shakespeare's themes of gender subversion are given a twist - an old twist, as it is true to the staging conventions of Shakespeare's time. This necessarily means that Orsino's relationship with Viola necessarily has strong homoerotic overtones, and it is interesting to note that the dynamics of this relationship is necessarily different in conventional modern production, where the Duke falls in love with the Viola underneath the guise of Cesario, not with Cesario himself.

But whereas Tam Williams plays Viola / Cesario as a gentle, somewhat fey young girl / boy (the fight with Sir Andrew Aguecheek is superb), Dugald Bruce-Lockhart reinvents the usually somewhat pompous and self-absorbed Olivia as something a little short of a sexy pantomime dame, and does it magnificently.

As ever the humour and energy is imparted by Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste exacting their terrible revenge on Mavolio. The garden scene where Malvolio finds the notes supposedly from Olivia is magnificent, different sized trees imparting a sense of perspective whilst the characters act as improbable statues - very funny. Equally amusing is the sight of the somewhat lugubrious Bob Barrett, who played Malvolio, in formal jacket and yellow tights with fishnets and studded-leather jockstrap.

Yet Shakespeare treats Malvolio harshly. Olivia imprisons him as he appears mad, and there he is taunted by Feste dressed as a priest. This scene is often played offstage or with Malvolio largely invisible, as its darkness disturbs the comedy. No hiding place here: Malvolio is thrust centre stage, naked and begrimed but for the by-now ragged yellow tights, his humiliation complete. One knows that when he says he will be revenged, he means it.

This excellent, striking, funny yet dark production ends on a haunting note. The music throughout has been superb, aided by a cast who are largely musicians themselves. As the final scene closes, Feste (Tony Bell) sings "When that I was and a little tiny boy" to the traditional tune but with haunting acapella accompaniment. The effect sticks in the mind, and stays with you on the Underground, as should the rest of this splendid production.

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