I am a frequent visitor to Peckham but I never realised it had a theatre in in, and certainly not one so vast – but here I am at The Bussey Building, and right now it is housing the Whistlestop Theatre company’s production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will.
In case you are not familiar with the plot, this play centres around the mistaken identity of Viola (Cam Spence), who disguises herself as a man after being washed ashore in an unknown land following a shipwreck which (supposedly) killed her twin brother, Sebastian (Jack Finch). Confusion and hilarity ensues. It’s one of those Shakespeare plays that is essentially the blueprint for every romantic comedy ever.
This production is a huge amount of fun. As I was ushered in by a heavily eyeliner-ed Sir Toby, and introduced to a nerdy Sir Andrew and a fur coat-clad Olivia, I couldn’t but smile. Improvising, the cast all set the scene convincingly in a London bar, where the rest of the action will take place, with beers and vodka shots all round.
I am a great believer in modern dress Shakespeare, and this re-imagining works well in the main, particularly in regard to the Sir Toby/Sir Andrew group of characters and the subplot involving Malvolio (James Taylor Thomas). When Malvolio appears in the second half as the victim of a practical joke, with ‘DICK’ written across his forehead, it is easy to imagine the perpetrators – Sir Toby and co – as any drunken group of friends today.
The whole business of the Viola/Olivia/Orsino plot is however a little confusing and has flaws. This whole play hinges on our belief that Olivia really thinks Viola is male, yet Viola just doesn’t look – or act – like a man. Although the language is clear, there are serious lacks in subtext, in my opinion. In a world where women actually do fall in love with women, and men with men, the whole gender confusion is less immediately funny. You lean towards thinking that perhaps Olivia is merely bi-curious.
The dialogue is generally very well delivered, with particularly good performances from Niall Rooney (Sir Toby) and Emma Richardson (Maria), but there are also moments which lack clear diction. My favourite part of this play has always been the ‘willow cabin’ speech, but here this didn’t pass muster for me. I just didn’t see, with any clarity, what Viola’s true feelings were. There are some other minor language points too – Feste the fool is a woman, which works well, but I don’t understand why the pronouns haven’t been changed to ‘she’.
However, that aside the play is very smoothly cut down to just 90 minutes and is delightedly fast-paced. The adaptation keeps the essence of the story very well, although I think we need to see more of Orsino, who is rather under-developed. All in all, it is fresh and clear and above all fun, which is really what Twelfth Night should be all about.
Twelfth Night is playing at The Bussey Building until 22 February. For more information and tickets, see the Whistle Stop Tour website.