Thursday, 4 July 2013

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (Propeller)

It's July, which means it must be time for one of my annual theatrical highlights: Having toured their current season since last autumn, the brilliant all-male Shakespeare troupe Propeller end at Artistic Director Ed Hall's London base, Hampstead Theatre. This year the company revisit a hit double bill from a few years back, and the reins are handed to Associate Director Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, who revives Hall's productions of Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew. From my perspective, Propeller are giving themselves a challenge this year: At the end of the current run I'll be returning to see if they can make me love the Shrew, a problem comedy I've never been a fan of. First though a much better play, but one so popular I seem to see it at least twice a year. Can they make Twelfth Night feel fresh?

In love with the mourning Countess Olivia, the Duke Orsino (Christopher Heyward) sends his new attendant Cesario to woo her on his behalf. But the haughty Olivia (Ben Allen) falls for the messenger instead, which is doubly awkward: Cesario is actually Viola (Joseph Chance,) a shipwrecked young woman in disguise. Meanwhile Olivia's rowdy household plot embarrassing revenge on her puritanical steward Malvolio (Chris Myles.)

Propeller's approach isn't to reinvent the wheel, rather they get to grips with the text and get under its skin in their work, powered by endless enthusiasm. The company's signature style is completed by a lot of live music, with the haunting sound made by running fingers around the rim of wine glasses a recurring theme here. Twelfth Night's autumnal theme is often used as an excuse for failing to get laughs, but here the play's status as last of the pure comedies is played differently: Michael Pavelka's design opens with a chandelier crashed on a floor strewn with litter: It must have been a hell of a party but it should be over now, but as the chandelier gets raised again the company make it clear they're going to keep the festivities going as long as they can.

I've been bemoaning a lack of good Violas in recent years but fortunately Chance provides us with a memorable one, with scene-stealing moments like a glorious awkwardness when the oblivious Orsino asks "him" to help him wash, as well as the ludicrous "fight" with John Dougall's doddering, bewigged Sir Andrew later on. Chance is also well-matched physically with Dan Wheeler as Viola's twin Sebastian, with whom the plot demands she be mistaken several times. Olivia, on the other hand, is a character who was well-served last year, what with Kirsty Bushell followed by Mark Rylance. Ben Allen's initial way of making his interpretation stand out is to play the vanity Viola accuses her of at the start - this does seem like a woman whose exaggerated mourning is more about herself than her dead brother. Though low-key for the first half, Allen actually really ups the comic stakes after the interval as well, earning some of the biggest laughs of the evening as Olivia's sexuality comes to the fore.

Regular audiences will have noticed that Propeller stalwart Chris Myles is in the middle of a running joke to get him into the most ridiculous outfit possible. I'm not sure anything will top last year's girl guide with a pencil moustache but in a play where ridiculous outfits are a plot point of course it's Myles' turn to take on Malvolio and his yellow stockings. I still hope to see someone avoid extremes and go for Simon Russell Beale's suggestion of a Malvolio whose outfit is merely badly out of date, but this version's studded leather codpiece is so typically Propeller it's hard to complain. Myles' trembling Malvolio is actually quite a restrained take on the character, and one whose punishment far outweighs his crime, making for one of the more moving conclusions when his mistreatment is revealed.

But Twelfth Night is an ensemble piece and you never know who's going to be the standout, and this time around I think it's Gary Shelford's sexy, no-nonsense, tap-dancing Maria who steals the show. Making it clear that hers and Sir Toby's (Vince Leigh) relationship is a sexual one from the start, Shelford is also the best example (although to be fair nobody in this cast really misses the mark) of how Propeller's approach to men playing women works so effectively. Despite his big earrings and fluffy slippers, he never comes across as being in drag, his female acting is never a parody but it's also able, at well-chosen moments, to play on the contrast between his character's femininity and his own masculine physicality.

Nothing's quite perfect; none of us (Propeller are addictive, there were now four of us in the group I went with) were sold on Finn Hanlon's Antonio, who the others thought overacted and I thought didn't really come up with much of a take on his character.

I liked the suggestion in the early scenes that Arthur Wilson's Curio has a crush on Orsino himself and so is resentful of "Cesario" becoming the favourite; this idea kind of fades out but then that's down to the play, as Curio pretty much disappears after a few scenes. And Hall and Roger Warren's take on the text has dispensed with Fabian entirely, an edit that's perfectly successful (the scene with the human statues means he's not missed, and makes for one of the best box-tree scenes I've ever seen) and I'm surprised we don't see it more often1. Propeller did make Twelfth Night feel fresh to me, and they lived up to my expectations - which, given how high those expectations have got over the last few years, is praise indeed.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 20th of July at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

1I still think Shakespeare got halfway through writing Twelfth Night, realised he'd forgotten to include one of his company's clowns, and shoe-horned Fabian in. "Oh, this bloke doesn't like Malvolio much either so he's... here."

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