Review by Matthew Taylor
I’m possibly biased of course, as “Twelfth Night” was the first Shakespeare play I ever performed in, but I really think it’s one of his better comedies. It’s got plenty of larger than life characters, some memorable set-pieces, and it’s not short on classic lines either : “if music be the food of love, play on”, “some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them”, “better a witty fool than a foolish wit” etc.
Last week’s production by Pepper’s Ghost Theatre Company was an incredibly affectionate, playful interpretation of the play. As I’ve said before when reviewing their shows, one of their greatest skills is to make you forget the back-breaking length of what you’re watching (3 hours 10 minutes with the interval this time!) and lose yourself in the story. An extremely impressive trick if you can pull it off – and I’m relieved to say that they did it again.
The staging was a shrewd twist on the upstairs theatre space at Creed Street Theatre, akin to their previous Shakespearean production (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). The seating was arranged at either side of the space with a long thin ‘runway’ connecting Duke Orsino’s court and Olivia’s house at opposing ends. Much of the action took place in this central area, highlighting the tactical game being played out between the two factions – at times we were switching our gaze from end to end like a game of tennis . Kevin Jenkins design worked superbly well in its simple elegance. Across all of this, James Tearle’s lighting design was deceptively subtle.
I particularly enjoyed the addition by producer/director Rosemary Hill of a five-piece orchestra to the proceedings: directed by Shahnaz Hussain and led by Steve McDaniel (composed by them both), they created an extremely atmospheric backdrop – courtly but emotive. Certainly if music really IS the food of love, this was a sumptuous banquet indeed. I’m always a sucker for a cello – here resonantly provided by the always-brilliant Nicole Collarbone – but all five of the musicians were top-notch, their soundtrack effective without overpowering.
I never like to single out particular actors too much, especially in a production like this where EVERYONE was very strong in the performance. It was notable – it isn’t always with local Shakespeare shows – that all of the cast understood the sense in the lines they were delivering. Which helps, it really does. They’re to be commended on this – as is the director. I wish I had space to review all fourteen actors equally. But sadly I don’t.
Having said that, I’d be remiss not to mention in passing Erienne Kate Barr’s Viola – she delivered both the comedy value and the inherent longing in her cross-dressed central protagonist with pitch-perfect awareness. The moments during one of the songs where she sat with the Duke’s matey arm round her shoulder while her head drifted almost unconsciously towards his hand was heartbreaking.
As if to further explore the blurring of gender roles at the heart of “Twelfth Night”, Tracy Watchorn was cast as Feste, the fool. As is often the case with Shakespeare, Feste knows more than he lets on, and Tracy’s take on him was cleverly played: there was a bitter wistfulness to it. Alongside with the chirpy wisdom, this streak of melancholy meant that the fool became at one remove from the world of the other characters, almost Puckish – and certainly more pivotal a role than I’ve seen in other productions.
But to be honest, everyone was bang on form – you’d never know this was an opening night. The pace was great – energetic but clear – and the knockabout comedy provided by Sir Toby & Co genuinely amusing. And regular Pepper’s Ghost-goers will know exactly what I mean when I describe the treat of perfect casting which saw Bill Handley appear as Malvolio. Excellent stuff, a joy to watch throughout.
All in all, the usual high-quality show from this outstanding theatre company – achieving greatness and thrusting it upon us, you might say (if, like me, thou wert a foolish wit).