Review: Twelfth Night, St. Mary Aldermanbury’s Garden

The Three Inch Fools’ Twelfth Night may have been the third production of the play that I’ve reviewed in 2017, but the young troupe’s jovial, musically inventive performance demonstrates that there’s always room for more Shakespeare in London. On Thursday evening, kicking off a madcap two-and-a-half month tour of 54 venues across the UK, The Three Inch Fools squeezed into the petite St. Mary Aldermanbury’s Garden (which boasts a Shakespeare First Folio sculpture at the entrance) behind the Guildhall Library. And though a pesky helicopter hovering overhead tried its hardest to drown out the first half of the performance, the quintet of able, energetic actors made a strong case for Shakespeare al fresco.

The five actors, under the spirited direction of Stephen Hyde, rotate through the clownier roles (Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, and Feste), rapidly switching costumes and accents in order to meet each scene’s needs: four of them, for example, play the role of Sir Toby at various points. It takes a little getting used to, and the characterizations aren’t particularly consistent from actor to actor, but it’s a useful, cleanly executed strategy.

While all of the performers show a comfortable facility for the language, most of the laughs tend to arise from bawdy gestures or the (quite successful) playful audience interaction rather than from the actors’ handling of the text (a result due surely, in part, to the garden’s acoustic). Still, Cameron Harle offers a marvelous, crystalline rendering of Olivia, unmistakably channeling Mark Rylance’s revered interpretation in his simpering and stuttering. Eddie Mann’s Malvolio brings new, pleasing colours to the letter-reading prank scene which here involves finger puppets. Hannah Blaikie and Tom Allenby trade off one-upping takes on the bawdy Maria, and each show off impressive versatility elsewhere in more dramatic roles, Blaikie as Sebastian and Allenby as Orsino. Rose Reade makes a nice Viola, but she stands out most in her cantankerous reading of Sir Toby.

The biggest highlight of this Twelfth Night might be the boisterous and evocative music, composed by the multi-talented Hyde (whose brother James directs this season’s concurrent Romeo and Juliet). The cast forms a nimble folk band (they switch instruments as confidently as acting roles) with especially good strumming from Harle and Mann and singing from Blaikie. Hyde smoothly weaves music in and out of the play: in one lovely moment that seems to reference how often and variously Shakespeare gets set to music, when Orsino requests a song, the musicians need to try out a couple different settings of “Come Away, Death” before they hit upon the one that Orsino’s expecting. By setting Viola’s self-describing speech about her made-up sister (delivered while she’s in disguise as a pageboy) to music, Hyde gives Viola and Orsino more time to discover their feelings for each other, and that relationship feels more richly realized and central here than I think I’ve ever seen it.

With a long summer ahead of them, the Three Inch Fools do have time to grow. I would have liked to see the full garden space incorporated a bit more into the staging. Given the play’s interest in mistaken identity, it seemed like a missed opportunity not to toy with having the same actresses switch between look-alike twins Viola and Sebastian.

As a collaborative act of warmth and friendly merrymaking, though, this Twelfth Night deserves to “play on”: these performers share characters, share clothes, and share tunes, constructing a joyful glow that audiences will want to bask in, too.

Twelfth Night is touring the UK until August 20.      

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins

Originally from New York City, Dan is a writer, composer, and educator currently studying Shakespeare at King's College London. When not at the theatre, he usually can be found singing with two London choirs or reading obscure early modern plays at the library.