“If music be the food of love, play on.” A line written by history’s most well-known playwright. No matter what day, if anyone wants to see William Shakespeare’s work they are guaranteed to find a performance in London. It’s easy to see why so many theatre companies reproduce or re-imagine his plays – straight away there is a well-written storyline with so much room for interpretation. This particular production of Twelfth Night is staying true to the text and the plot but has taken some artistic licence with the location.
Set in a Victorian style circus tent, this version tells of Orsino (Aqil Zahid) who, longing after his Olivia (Lucy Laing), hires Cesario (Ella Garland) to win her heart. Cesario (Garland), in fact Viola in disguise, is in love with Orsino (Zahid) and so is eager to do his every bidding. Unfortunately on their first meeting Olivia in fact falls for Cesario/Viola. The plot is further complicated when Sebastian (David Lenik), Viola’s identical twin brother, turns up looking for his estranged sister. Of course, being a Shakespeare play, there is an equally complicated sub-plot, whereby in Olivia’s household the other servants hatch a plot to humiliate the pompous Malvolio (Andrew Seddon).
All in all, the acting from each of the characters has its moments, but is inconsistent. In fact, arguably the most impressive contributors to this production are the backstage team. Director Natalie York has put together a show that is consistently impressive in all of its creative aspects, really bringing the Victorian circus style to life. Musical director Nick Barstow includes pieces reminiscent of the traditional music hall, which bring an eerie and faded atmosphere to the stage. Costume designer Giulia Scrimieri picks outfits that look tattered and faded yet still indicate the circus attire of long ago. The choreography of Thomas Michael Voss and the newly composed songs of Adrian York add interest throughout the production; the opening and closing dance sequences are fresh and inventive, whilst the fool Feste (Lawrence Boothman) gives great colour to the lyrical folk songs that York puts together.
The acting does have moments of note. Laing begins with an uneven performance (likely due to nerves) but settles down and improves steadily throughout the show. The initial encounter with Garland’s Cesario feels natural – with each character trying to get the measure of the other, it’s a real battle of words that both actresses deliver with confidence. Garland’s delivery is more of a rollercoaster: some speeches have light and shade, comedy and sincerity, whilst others are bland and uninspiring. Seddon’s performance as Malvolio is almost the reverse of Olivia’s. Initially as an arrogant steward he exudes nonchalance and has great diction, but quickly becomes too over-the-top once his more maniacal side is revealed. Over-the-top acting is in fact a theme here – Zahid, Sir Toby (Stephen MacNeice) and Sir Andrew (Angus Howard) all fall victim to it. Zahid is too intense and unnatural, MacNeice too aggressive at times and Howard is overly annoying as the bumbling fool. In fact he comes across more foolish than the fool Feste himself, who definitely has some of the best lines in the play – “many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage” is timed well and has the desired effect on the audience. For the most part Boothman treads the line between convincing and overacting well, yet some dialogue could be more nuanced to bring out a more mature performance.
It’s always exciting to see a new take on a classic performance. But it is a risk, overturning such a great success from the greatest of playwrights. The new take here worked very well and with some more focus on the delivery it could turn into a real treat in fringe theatre.
Twelfth Night is playing at The Space until 8 August. For more information and tickets, see The Space website. Photo: Venus Raven.