Saturday, 16 February 2013

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (Custom/Practice / Lion & Unicorn)

You're never more than ten feet away from a production of Twelfth Night, so another one is rarely the most exciting prospect. On the other hand, what's the point of discovering companies that show promise if you don't follow up on it? I pretty much stumbled upon Rae McKen's company Custom/Practice with their Dream last summer, and now they turn to Shakespeare's story of boy/girl identical twins washed ashore in a foreign land after a shipwreck, each unaware that the other has survived, and getting caught up in the escapades of lovestruck Orsino, grieving Olivia, and the latter's household of drunks and fools. McKen's production is modern-dress, and she hasn't quite found an alternative setting that works for the story; much more successful though is the way the characters are adapted around having a particularly young cast (two are still at Italia Conti.)

Sir Toby Belch is probably the most obvious example; usually played as middle-aged, James Corley's casting makes him a rather obnoxious, drunken Sloane, whose relationship with Funmi Ogunleye's Maria is clearly sexual from the start. It's an entertaining interpretation, and one that makes sense of the character's penchant for cruelty.

Alex Whitworth is a decent Viola (which makes her better than most I've seen in the last few years) although it's hard to focus on her performance when there appears to be a dead cat sitting on her head. Shanaya Rafaat is an effervescent Olivia although perhaps a bit too much so at the start when she's still meant to be in mourning. Oddly, Nathanael Campbell's Feste isn't the outsider in her household here, if anything he's more welcome than Sir Toby and his cronies (or singular crony, as Fabian has been cut, a sensible enough edit since as written the character appears OUT OF NOWHERE halfway through someone else's scheme.)

I didn't really get a handle on who Fred Gray's Malvolio was, but he's very good in the letter scene, and later there's a fun moment as Toby and Maria try to exorcise him out of his yellow-stockings phase. The most memorable performance turns out to be Richard Keiss as Sir Andrew, a very enthusiastic take with more than a touch of Hugh Laurie in it, my favourite moment being his reaction to the audience's sympathy at the "I was adored once" line.

There's lots of nice little touches, like opening with Rupert Charmak's Orsino consoling himself with the chocolates Olivia has returned to him, or Sir Andrew's terrible challenge to a duel being written on a party invitation - what a beautifully in-character way to miss the point entirely. And something I don't think I've seen before, in that Antonio's (Josh Enright) friendship with Sebastian (David Palmstrom) is openly played as an unrequited attraction without it ever being played for laughs: The closest Antonio's sexuality comes to being relevant to the comedy is when he inadvertently kisses Viola - but that's more part of a different running joke where "Cesario" gets snogged by half the cast. McKen also completely gratuitously has Palmstrom get his chest out to do a scene change, the kind of shameless behaviour that round these parts means she's entitled to a biscuit.

I found this a Twelfth Night to raise a lot of smiles if not so many laughs, but of course I may be in part just tired of the play. McKen's programme bio shows she's got a clear preference for Shakespeare when working with her own company, but also that she's stuck very much with the most popular ones. Perhaps branching out to more obscure corners of the canon would be an interesting next step, as so far she doesn't seem short of ideas, which might really bring to life one of the less familiar comedies.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is booking until the 23rd of February at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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