If there is one thing that Shakespeare’s brilliant comedy Twelfth Night lacks, it is the presence of magic and the supernatural which is so beautifully and mischievously used in his other well-loved comedies A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. However, director Jonathan Munby brings magic and wonder into this play in such a simple and beautiful way that it feels as if they perfectly belong there, and it makes this production such a joy to watch.
“If music be the food of love, play on”, Orsino’s famous first line from the play, is taken quite literally in this production from English Touring Theatre and Sheffield Theatres, as music is played almost constantly: whether it is being performed live by the brilliantly talented Feste (Brian Protheroe), sung raucously by Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played over the top of love-filled exchanges, or blasted in between scenes to keep the action flowing. It seems almost as if we are watching an Elizabethan soap opera, which, it could be argued, is exactly what Shakespeare’s plays are. Love is also a key theme here, or more directly, sex – in both its literal and biological meaning. Opportunities for sexual contact are taken whenever they can be found (though don’t worry, it’s all PG), and the question of gender, which is at the heart of this play with its cross-dressing protagonist, is taken one step further by calling into question the sexuality of more than one character.
The cast all do a very good job. Viola (Rose Reynolds) is a convincing cross-dresser and a feisty protagonist who holds her own amongst the large cast; David Fielder and Milo Twomey as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew respectively are wonderfully comical and stupid yet still very endearing; and Ross Waiton brings real passion and pain to make a powerful Antonio, who is a character that can all too often fade into the background. But the stand-out performance has to be Brian Protheroe as Feste who plays an ultimate Shakespearian fool. Witty and clownish in equal measure, Protheroe brings a careful metatheatricality which does not totally break the fourth wall, but makes it feel as if the whole play is just a farce cleverly controlled and orchestrated by Feste – and he is letting us in on the joke.
It is the creative design by Colin Richmond which brings the mysterious and magical elements into this high-society drama. The set is pretty bare and its features give the play an unspecific time setting, which, when added to the worn out look of the set with its smashed windows and peeling paint, gives the impression of an abandoned stately home where the stories of past rulers and lovers might come crawling out from its worn-out furniture. And the story does indeed come crawling out from the furniture: Viola enters the stage after the storm by falling out of a wardrobe, which is used variously throughout the play as a hiding place, prison, and exit route, and which brings further suggestions of magic with its connotations of Narnia and a magical world beyond the ordinary. Another non-realistic design element is the use of petals to display love. Every time a fierce expression of love is unveiled, a cascade of rose petals miraculously emerges, so that by the end of the play the stage is covered in petals, just as the play is saturated with love.
Like all Shakespeare plays, the language takes a little getting used to, and this production is a bit slow to get started but it is a joy once it does. With laugh-out-loud comedy, poignant scenes of love and heartbreak, and beautiful music and design choices, this show is right up there with the best Shakespeare productions and should be an easy choice for Shakespeare novices and experts alike.
Twelfth Night is on at Richmond Theatre until 22 November before continuing on its national tour. For more information and tickets, see the English Touring Theatre website.