Two survivors of a shipwreck emerge groggily from a pool set into the stage. The young Viola, one of a pair of twins, is distraught at the loss of her brother Sebastian. This is the last moment of straightforwardness in the play. From then on, we are in the world of “If?”, as the first speech by Orsino establishes. Twlefth Night has been described as an anarchic comedy, as a poignant exploration of the themes of love, betrayal and loss, and as a wild romp.
It contains all those elements, but to us it’s a fairytale for weary adults. It sets the heady insanity of young love against the more practical magic of long-established relationships and friendships with the melancholy long shadow of mortality creeping alongside both. Shakespeare’s comedies are more difficult than are the tragedies for a modern audience. As Edmund Kean was said to have remarked upon his deathbed “Dying is easy…comedy is hard.” Time is unkind to comedy, whereas tragic themes endure.
In this production, the funny bits were funny. This was brought about by having a cast of some of the finest actors I have seen for a long time. They shamelessly and gleefully borrowed the attributes and characteristics of some of comedy’s best known performers. The references came as quickly and frequently as the laughs. We had a slumbering priest who snoozed peacefully and inexplicably through various scenes before a disconcertingly Father Jack-like leap into consciousness.
Adam Keast’s foppish, posing Andrew Aguecheek reminded me of Rik Mayall being The People’s Poet, while Pauline Daniel’s superb Maria channelled Hylda Baker to glorious effect. Paul Duckworth as Feste often seemed possessed. He made this licensed fool the kind of glittering world-weary drag queen with whom one might share several gins and unwise confidences in a basement bar at three in the morning, while conveying a wisdom and knowledge of suffering most poignantly conveyed in his songs.
I last saw him being butch in “Beating Berlusconi”, so it was a treat to see his Feste mincing about in painful-looking kitten heels, shooting greenly glittering looks out with barbed one-liners. Andrew Aquecheek also has one of the most poignant half-lines in the play. His wistful “I was adored…once.” trails into the air like the smoke of burnt love letters.
The play deals with the travesty, pretence, trickery, betrayal, as well as with the joys, of love. It is concerned with the weasel twists of wordplay, and the way in which ambition and self-delusion colludes with deceit. Words are an element of disguise and dissembling. Characters, however, are allowed to express themselves truly in song, Music is not only famously the food of love, but the conduit through which it is most sincerely expressed. Only now and again do characters manage to say what they mean at the right time to the right person; for the most part they are addressing someone through a fog of misunderstanding.
Emotions are outpoured to persons who are not what they seem, the wrong sex, or rank, or completely fictitious, as when Feste becomes a priest; “Sir Topas”, exorcising the demons of madness from Malvolio in the guise of what appeared to be a black Hellfire and Damnation charismatic preacher from America’s Deep South.
The bewildered young lovers are winsome and energetic, with Natalie Dew’s Olivia demonstrating both a strong mortal sense and a compelling cleavage, as she rids herself of the slightly Hampstead head prefect air that made her priggish in Act 1. Viola/Cesario is puckishly androgynous and lithe, but I felt that Jodie McNee, a fine young actress, was not yet entirely comfortable with some of her speeches.Luke Jerdy, as Sebastian, was delightfully puleed, outraged and knocked sideways by desire. His real grief for, and equally heartfelt delight at the restoration of his missing-presumed drowned sister was moving and perfectly pitched.
Now, the grown-ups (if they can be described as such without risking slander) the masterly Matthew Kelly, a bibulous roistering Sir Toby Belch, drenched in booze and alight with mischief. His behaviour in the household is only tolerated for his kinship with Lady Olivia, his niece, and he is the largest thorn in the tightly-wound side of Malvolio, her steward. Malvolio must be annoying and pompous enough to be almost irresistible as the butt of a practical joke; but also human enough for us to be uncomfortable when his torment is carried beyond foolery and into cruelty. Nicholas Woodeson was magnificent, and retained an element of masculine dignity underneath the pretension, vaunting ambition, and delusions of grandouer You have to be able to root for him, and take his threat of “I shall be revenged. On the whole pack of you” seriously.
The topsy-turvy world of the play draws us in with the sheer oddness of the set; at first so minimal as to be stark, and then becoming increasingly crowded with images of fancy; a garden descending from on high, an underground pool, a subterranean dungeon; all these things delineate the fairytale quality, as does the delicate, plangent music of Peter Coyte.
It struck me throughout that Twelfth Night is a most fitting choice of play for a Liverpool theatre and audience; it is soaked with music and riddled with wordplay, high emotions and romantic delusions abound, along with mischief and a spirit of joyous anarchy… all qualities we understand locally, and export in large amounts.
The all-singing, all dancing finale makes a statement of intent…”We strive to please you every day”.
In this city of entertainment, excitement, melancholy and mirth, we could do worse than adopt this as a civic motto, and the Everyman has already set it to music for us.
til 5 April