Play On directed by Robert Hollingworth and Omar Shahryar, Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, UK, 1 November 2017
Review by Sarah Olive, University of York
The undergraduate students of York’s music department had only six weeks to work with their directors – Robert Hollingworth and Omar Shahryar – devising and developing their practical project. In light of this, it seems only fair to reprise my challenge of reviewing in sixty minutes here. Because the annual project involves first, second and third year students’ input, there was no pre-existing ‘fixed script’: in fact, ‘no material was on page before Week 1’ of Autumn term (Hollingworth). Hollingworth wanted to encourage students to work in the commedia dell’arte tradition of improvised comedy based on stock types, with lashings of lazzi – jokes in physical or verbal form. The students suggested Twelfth Night as a springboard for the production. In Hollingworth’s words, Play On was ‘reverse-engineered’ from these early modern sources; the music of Handel, Purcell, Telemann, Schumann, Rameau and Monteverdi; original compositions and settings of songs in the play such as ‘Come away death’ and ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’. With the tight timeline and desire to develop students’ experience no doubt in mind, clusters of scenes – those involving Olivia and Viola, Sebastian and Antonio, Orsino and Viola, and Olivia’s household – were divided between six student directors (Megan Dawes, Stefan Grant, Sam Gilliatt, Jack Harberd, Ellen Rhiannon Garbutt, Solomon Hayes). The scale of the endeavour felt a little akin to the York Mystery plays, with seventy students [actually 85 with backstage and tech/planning] involved in wide-ranging capacities.
Viola (Fizz Margereson, an outstanding performer who would more than grace the famous York Theatre Royal panto stage) washed up in Illyria amid a video-projected storm (the projections onto three surfaces throughout meant that we were subsequently transported to Italian villas and gardens without the need for set changes). The comedy began as she debated various names for her male guise – rejecting Bob, and Ambrose, before settling on Cesario. Not letting go of her feminine name quite so quickly as the play itself, these music students managed to fit in an obligatory viola joke in the first half (the gag being that yes, Viola was drowned: the captain had ordered the sailors to rescue the violins first). Other highlights of the production included the contrast between the cerebral Sebastian (Sam Gilliatt) and Antonio (Dominic Cramp), who sported a distinctly Yorkshire accent, a shoe fetish, and a knack for double-entendres about purses and balls. Olivia’s falling for Cesario, and Sir Andrew’s subsequent ire, were narrated in the style of a David Attenborough nature documentary. The popular cultural references rolled on through their sparring, from references to Strictly Come Dancing to fight scenes that evolved into a WWF-inspired bout. Meanwhile the duel between Sebastian and Sir Andrew quickly crumbled into farce, deploying Toby’s picnic items including a chicken drumstick and a plaice instead of lethal weapons. This magpie appropriation of popular and high culture, from unicycle to baroque keyboard, fitted well in light of the commedia dell’arte influence on entertainment as diverse as Punch and Judy, Shakespeare, pantomime, Monty Python, Benny Hill.
Malvolio sported the mask of a stock character, the zanni, for much of the play, walking with a distinctive hip-splayed gait. His theme ‘Malvolio!’, a resounding oompah, music hall inspired number co-written by Silv Pybus, Solomon Hayes and Chris Murphy, was the show’s masterpiece of original comic composition. Its words were projected onto the walls of the auditorium – and there was possibly a missed opportunity from the cast to invite the crowd to sing along. It was so a catchy tune that I doubt much pressure, or skill, would have been required to rope in the audience. Added to the usual gulling of Malvolio were instructions for a purple fright wig and sheer panties – perhaps marking this production’s turn from piss-taking prank to something darker. His taunting was the stuff of nightmare – accomplished through swirling monochrome projections, a grating ‘three blind mice’-like strain performed by a massed kazoo band, that bled into a rendition of ‘HH w and rain’, with a chorus fanned out across the stage and down the aisles of the Jack Lyons concert hall. One criticism of the production might be that it wasn’t particularly apparent why Malvolio had been restrained if you weren’t familiar with the play – however, this was acknowledged by the narrators who skilfully used juggling balls, and audience participation, to physicalize the confusion they confessed to feeling about the plot. Malvolio’s humiliation closed only with the action – his perpetually drunk nemesis, Toby, spewed on Malvolio’s shirt during the celebratory closing jig: a final slur.
The phrase ‘I really thought that was a girl’, overheard at the interval and on leaving, could have been wielded in relation to numerous character-actor gender identities, including in several carnivalesque moments from the chorus, but the production’s final words – in which the two couples expressed their uncertainty and indifference to each other’s ‘true’ names and sexes – drove home the LGBTQ rallying cry, ‘love is love’.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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