Twelfth Night, or What You Will is the latest production from the wonderful Scena Mundi, kicking off their Spring/Summer 2016 season in fine (and high) fashion at the French Protestant Church in Soho Square. It is a truly beautiful building. The company’s commitment to performing in historic surroundings is inspiring – it really provides an atmosphere that simply can’t be artificially created.
The play concerns Viola, a shipwrecked noblewoman in a foreign land. Believing she has lost her twin brother (Sebastian) she dresses as a boy and finds a role in the Duke Orsino’s household. She finds herself in love with him, though he pines for the countess Olivia – who soon falls for Viola in her male guise. Around this, the heart of the story, are interjections from Feste (the fool) and japes from members of Olivia’s household. Love, loss & redemption predominate, with an injection of comedy and gender politics.
The main set itself is quite sparse, but the church’s resources are used well. Most notably the main aisle, allowing the audience to feel immersed in the action, and the pulpit – it gives extra height and allows Malvolio to be quite creative later on… One of the main additions is a shiny blue runway, heading up to some steps at the altar end of the aisle. This acts as a way to display the production as a bit of a fashion show, without sacrificing substance for style. With it being blue it can’t help but evoke the sea; the text is also littered with sea-faring metaphors, which reminds us of the cause of the events unfolding before us.
Up-and-coming designer Georgia Green has provided the costumes for this production, and they really are a joy to behold. Olivia in glamorous mourning, Malvolio with an ingenious bow tie positioned in the midst of his ruff and, most eye-catching of all, Feste’s ensemble. There is a clear echo of the late, great David Bowie in this piece, which couldn’t be more appropriate with his propensity for the androgynous – not to mention the various identities he assumed across his career.
Jean-Philippe Martinez has provided some original music for the production, giving it a unique feel. This is combined with Darren Royston’s movement & choreography to great effect, such as in the opening sequence that introduces the characters & sets the scene through music & movement alone.
The cast is a great balance of Scena Mundi regulars and new faces.
Leading the cast as Viola is Harriett Hare. She is vibrant & gutsy as the patient heroine, trusting that time will set everything right. Hare makes good use of Viola’s asides, showing how quick-witted her character truly is. Pip Brignall plays opposite her as Duke Orsino. He may appear in relatively few scenes, but does not fail to make his presence felt. His character’s supposed love for Olivia manifests itself as self-importance, slowly softening under Viola/Cesario’s influence. Brignall & Hare are particularly wonderful together when Orsino questions Cesario about his love life. The idea that Orsino might be developing feelings for Cesario is not made explicitly in the text, meaning it is up to the actors & director to decide how much of this subtext to show. It is charmingly awkward to watch, and really rather endearing.
Emma Hall commands the stage as Illyria’s countess, exuding nobility. That being said, as Olivia begins to fall for the disguised Viola you can see her veil being lifted metaphorically as well as physically, as she opens herself up to vulnerability. It makes the final resolution all the happier, despite the roundabout journey Olivia is forced to take.
Edward Fisher’s Feste has a real presence and, indeed, is near omnipresent in Twelfth Night. Fisher captures the combined cheek & wisdom of the man referred to by everyone as the “fool”, showing himself to be something far more. Even subtly implying that he has seen through Viola’s disguise. He leads several songs, and displays a real physicality later on when addressing the imprisoned Malvolio as both himself & the curate, Sir Topas.
Casting a woman in the role of Sebastian is an interesting choice, adding an extra layer of gender confusion to Shakespeare’s text. It works well in keeping the themes of the play at the front of your mind, as well as fitting in rather neatly in terms of who from the company can take on this role. In this production, Clare Brice plays the sincere Sebastian & scheming Maria – completely different characters in so many aspects, but she pulls it off superbly.
Were this not a 400-year old play, I’d have said the parts of Sirs Toby Belch & Andrew Aguecheek had been written with Jack Christie & Tom Winsor’s talents in mind. They are an incredible double act – Christie is clearly relishing the opportunity to play the drunken bully, whilst Winsor is revelling in his turn as the foolish knight. The latter also makes brilliant use of a wig that I now cannot imagine his character without! They really do light up the stage every time they have a scene together – and along with David Keogh (Fabian) made me cry with laughter as they hid behind a makeshift tree…
One of my favourite moments in the play involves Malvolio & a pair of yellow stockings. I think it’s fair to say that Martin Prest does this scene, and the whole character of Malvolio, complete justice. That was the second occasion on which I found myself crying with laughter! There are some excellent facial expressions in his repertoire, put to very good use here. He makes a pompous, unlovable character utterly enthralling to watch, heightening his ultimate fall from grace.
This has easily become one of my favourite Shakespeare productions that I’ve yet seen. Never before have I laughed until I cried at the Bard, and I doubt I will do that at many (or any) more of his comedies. It is a simple but clever play, eminently quotable, and Scena Mundi do a wonderful job in showing this off. As far as this goes, you can never have too much of a good thing…
My verdict? Shakespeare as it should be: innovative, beautiful and (above all) entertaining. An absolute must-see.