By Watermill Theatre
Saturday 20th May, York Theatre Royal
After seeing this company’s production of Romeo and Juliet (which you can read my review of here) as part of York Shakespeare Festival on Tuesday, I was looking forward to seeing their version of Twelfth Night on Saturday afternoon – but boy, I was not prepared for it to be so good.
The jazz theme was clear from the moment we sat down; the same staging that had been used for R+J had been transformed into the smoky, dusky ‘Elephant Jazz CLub’, with lamp lit tables lining the stage and a fairy-lit shabby-chic cloth hanging stylishly from the balcony. The cast, having swapped jeans and hoodies for dapper 1920’s getups, roamed the stage reading papers, smoking cigars and even dancing with an audience member as the band played a sultry number before the production began.
Once again, from the get-go the music played an integral role in the performance; this production was clearly influenced by the wonderful Scott Bradley and hisPostmodern Jukebox and included fantastic renditions of both jazz classics and modern tunes given a ‘20s twist. Instruments of the era (think double bass, saxophone, trombone etc) were played by various members of the cast once again showing off their incredible versatility, both as part of the songs and the ambient music which pulled the production together. The music worked in perfect tandem with the rest of the performance; creating atmosphere, accenting comedic moments and matching the on-point choreography.
The best thing about this production; it was funny. Genuinely funny. It should be a given when discussing a comedy, but too often with Shakespearean comedies companies rely too heavily on the text when, let’s face it, the jokes can be pretty easy to miss. Don’t get me wrong I’m sure Shakespeare was a funny dude, but his jokes don’t tend to elicit more than a quiet titter when spoken on their own these days. To bring out that comedy and get real laughs, you need to use physicality and vocal nuance, and Watermill not only understood that, but they excelled at it. Almost every performance was spot on, and some very well-timed choreography took the comedy to another level. One scene in particular comes to mind here, in which Malvolio (brilliantly portrayed by Peter Dukes) is tricked into believing that Olivia is in love with him and delivers a long monologue while unknowingly being spied on by Maria, Toby Belch, Feste and Aguecheek. The devious foursome leapt around the stage into increasingly hilarious and unbelievable hiding places with delightful precision, eventually leading up to a perfectly fitting rendition of Lorde’s Royals by Dukes. One stand-out moment amongst many in this production.
On top of the fantastic staging and blocking, almost every actor’s performance was on point in this piece. I could probably write an adoring essay about every one but I’ll try to keep it brief! Lauryn Redding once again stole the show with her playing of Sir Toby Belch – her comedic timing was always just right, with every movement and drunken hiccup polished and timed to a T. Victoria Blunt as the devious Maria and Mike Slader as the wonderfully camp Aguecheek were his perfect co-conspirators, again both amping up the physical and vocal comedy to hilarious effect. Along with Feste, played by Offue Okegbe, they made up a riotous foursome who were the life and soul of the party and the play.
Rebecca Lee also shone as Viola; there’s just something about her which was so charming. She carried herself with a mischievous humour and spoke with such beautiful tone and clarity – I love it when you see an actor who delivers Shakespearean language naturally, like it rolls off the tongue. I also cannot not mention Peter Dukes as Malvolio once again. He played the stiff-upper-lipped steward like a pro but really came alive when his character had a…costume change, shall we say. I think he got the biggest laughs of the show strutting around the stage in what I can only describe as a Frank-N-Furter costume gone wrong –thank God the guy can pull off yellow and has great legs! My only criticism of Dukes’ performance was that he may have portrayed Malvolio’s despair at the end almost too convincingly, as I was genuinely saddened by his fate and probably ended up caring for him more than any other character.
There were many wonderful little moments – the opening where Orsino conducted the cast as well as a (thankfully rhythmic) audience member, the gender-swapping of vocal parts in Royals, the irreverent night-time revelry of Toby Belch and co. They all combined with brilliant comedic performances, an unbelievable soundtrack, excellent staging and choreography to form a well-conceived and superbly executed production which was filled with laughs from beginning to end. I went in thinking Twelfth Night was one of my least favourite Shakespeare plays, and left thinking it was one of my favourites.
Summary: A laugh-out-loud, musical extravaganza of a comedy that feels as much like a party as a play. It doesn’t get much better than this when it comes to Shakespeare, folks.
NB: I just have to add that both the people I took to see these plays with me were a little apprehensive about seeing Shakespeare (one having only seen a few Shakespeare productions a long time ago and one having never seen any Shakespeare on the stage whatsoever) and both have said they’re now keen to see more after watching Watermill Theatre’s productions this week – and I don’t think there’s a bigger triumph of theatre than that.