Twelfth Night, Watermill, dir. Paul Hart, York Theatre Royal. 19 May 2017.
Reviewed by Sarah Olive
This production was one of two offerings from Watermill Theatre at the second York International Shakespeare Festival (Romeo and Juliet was the other). Both traded heavily on the incorporation of live music into the productions: Romeo and Juliet with mainstream pop music, Twelfth Night with jazz (and some jazzed-up twenty-first century chart hits). ‘Summertime’, ‘Georgia on my Mind’, ‘Fever’, ‘La Vie en Rose’ and strains of ‘Love is a Losing Game’ all featured in the latter production. Both offerings were set in era-appropriate dive bars. The pre-show paraded a panoply of instruments played largely by the cast members: trombone, saxophone, drums, guitar, clarinet, double bass. The bass was at one point, inventively, simultaneously plucked and beat as a drum with brushes, to the audible amusement of the nine-year-old drummer watching behind me. At another, it was whisked away from Toby Belch (Lauryn Redding) leaving them playing some pretty mean air bass. Later still, the cello became the box-tree behind which the characters in Malvolio’s gulling outrageously hid themselves (Malvolio was played by Peter Dukes). One audience member was brought on stage to dance with a cast member, other cast members ventured into the audience for a chat, and someone in a front row seat was given a tambourine to shake until Orsino (Jamie Satterthwaite) directly addressed them in his opening speech with ‘Enough, no more!/Tis not so sweet now as it was before’. Orsino was that embarrassing drunk with delusions of being a serious muso, conducting the band in their song. Indeed, he was later shown to hire Cesario (/Viola – Rebecca Lee) on the basis that his would-be page responded to his tuneless guitar strumming with recognition and delight (well-feigned).
Music suffused the production. Actors moved between dialogue and instruments at lightning speed. They were talented to the extent that I was unconvinced that anyone in the vicinity of the music would complain of the racket, as does Malvolio, purportedly on behalf of Olivia. The stage was set out with cabaret-style seating around the edges, which actors sometimes sat in to watch their fellows’ action (at the Watermill itself, audiences are allocated to these seats). The bass case was borne onto the stage as Olivia’s brother’s coffin (I saw two productions of Twelfth Night this week which staged his funeral non-verbally, the other was TNT touring in Tokyo). Olivia (Aruhan Galieva) and Maria (Victoria Blunt) chanted prayers over the cello coffin when Cesario entered, as a defence against ‘his’ master’s messages. Cesario, finding it hard to interrupt them, joined in their sung prayers and effectively gained his entry into conversation. The musical highlight for was Malovolio’s creepy rendition of Lorde’s hit ‘Royals’, which he delivered in anticipation of appearing before Olivia in the yellow stockings commanded by the letter he has found. His cut-glass RP delivery was reminiscent of Peter Sellers’ villainous Richard III parody ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and contrasted with some very sleazy brass. The choice of song, with lyrics including ‘Let me be your ruler, you can call me Queen B/ And baby I’ll rule/ Let me live that fantasy’ effectively highlighted his willingness to be dominated by Olivia in return for her hand in marriage and the opportunity to, in turn, dominate his perceived inferiors: ‘She may command me. I serve her, she is my lady…I will do everything that thou wilt have me!’. Its lyric, ‘I’m in love with being queen’, foreshadowed not only his power trip over the rest of the household, but also his appearance before Olivia in drag: bare torso, black wig, yellow stockings supported with black suspender belt, paired with black satin knickers and a purple feather boa (causing Feste to address ‘Madam!’ to him, rather than Olivia as lady of the house). It hardly seemed to matter that the lyrics the list fantasies of wealth and grandeur available to young people in mainstream popular music in order for Lorde to disown them with the retort: ‘We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair…We crave a different kind of buzz’. Music had previously accompanied a change in gendered self-presentation, with Caro Emeralds’ ‘Coming Back as a Man’ sung by the ship-wrecked Viola. Again, the song forewarned the audience of the ‘ultimate reversal’ planned by Viola and with its lyric ‘you are the man’, echoes later words. However, its appropriation in the play ignored the intention of the song’s narrator to revenge male infidelity by dragging up ‘To catch someone who’s in for such a night he won’t forget’ and contrasted with Viola’s explicit squeamishness about triggering a queer sexual encounter with either Orsino or Olivia (note her insistence on changing back into her woman’s clothes at the play’s denouement and, in this production, the marked sounding of the line ‘I AM Viola’ to evidence her relief at being rid of her pretense). The song ‘Mad World’ (originally Tears for Fears, popularly covered by Gary Jules) bookended the production, aptly highlighting the confusion engendered by the play’s twins and various characters dis/guises – although, in this case, I wouldn’t request ‘that strain again’ because Shakespeare’s lines strained to fit the music’s rhythms.
Fitting the devil-may-care decadence of its prohibition setting, the production was frankly sexual. Sebastian exited Olivia’s bedroom (offstage) bare-chested, wriggling back into his clothes as he wondered at the past night’s events. Maria was the sauciest I have seen. For the line ‘I pray you, bring your/hand to the buttery bar and let it drink’ addressed to Toby Belch, she opened her arms to 180° and boldly held them there. Having entered the later row led by Toby in a long white nightgown and headscarf, on Malvolio’s rebuke ‘This is much credit to you’, she sat on a chair, legs crossed and insolently, defiantly, bared her legs at him. Toby’s name and title (‘Sir’) were maintained by the production, though Olivia’s address ‘she’s in the third degree of drink’ indicated this production’s assignment of the character’s gender – as did the way she tugged her jacket open, ‘flashing’ her breasts at Feste. Toby’s costuming was something between Rosie the Welder and a land girl: dull brown breeches, blue turban, dark eye make-up and red lipstick. Unlike productions where Toby Belch leches after Maria, with the pair married off at the end of the play as Olivia’s ‘punishment’ to them for their treatment of Malvolio, here they had already started their relationship, brought together by their loathing of Malvolio, plotting against him and rather getting off on it. On Malvolio’s line ‘For this night, to bed, and dream on the event’, Toby pulled in Maria for a deep snog. The production freshly queered the relationship between these two characters, introducing an explicitly lesbian desire in addition to Olivia’s desire for Viola in her disguise as Cesario. However, this was coupled with the loss of the explicitly homoerotic, male-to-male attraction Antonio has to Sebastian in the play, since the production rendered the former role as Antonia (Emma Macdonald) – a gruff, deep-voiced female captain in heavy coat and boots. I didn’t see why she couldn’t have been cross-gender cast in the existing role. Rather than any political agenda, the re-gendering of roles and re-sexualising of relationships seems likely to be a product of the cast’s 50:50 female:male split. Other recent productions I’ve seen have had more male actors in their cast, even where there’s been a high-profile gender-swap such as Tamsin Grieg playing Malvolio for the National Theatre. This company is gender, youth and BAME inclusive.
Other plusses of the production include references to the shipwreck through flashes of action which turned the cabaret into a Titanic-style crash, in which the band played on; eschewing the clichéd moonwalk on Aguecheek’s ‘back trick’ for a really inept bit of lindyhopping from Mike Slader; the division of the Captain’s speech between the ensemble worked well for the small cast and worked better in response to Viola’s appeal ‘What country friends is this?’; the playing of Malvolio as hopelessly slow to discern his name in ‘M-A-O-I’, exasperating the plotters; as well as Maria standing behind him mouthing the words he is reading out loud in the letter she has written. There were some problems: amid the British accents and American prohibition setting, Russian-sounding officers suddenly surfaced on Antonio’s case; there were moments of inaudibility, perhaps explained by the size of the company’s home theatre and also by occasional competition between the music and speech (previously noted in The Stage’s review); there was nothing memorable about the harrowing of Malvolio, his unforgettable line ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ was underpowered. The forswearing of a deeply dark, sadistic approach to the scene does, however, mean that the production is more than usually suitable for children. A loss for some audiences nevertheless means a win for those planning a family theatre trip to the production as it tours the UK this summer.