Not only is 2017 the unofficial ‘Year of Twelfth Night’, it also seems to come with Romeo and Juliet in rep – and this is the case for the Watermill Theatre’s touring productions, most recently resident at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. Twelfth Night is set in the revolutionary Jazz Age, as the auditorium becomes the Elephant Jazz Club. With its themes of love, cross-dressing and revelry – as well as several songs – this era is full of potential for this particular play.
Orsino is pining for Olivia, and uses the newly arrived Viola (dressed as a boy and calling herself Cesario) to press his suit further, however this only succeeds in making Olivia fall for ‘Cesario’. Meanwhile Viola’s twin brother Sebastian arrives on the same island – both thought the other had drowned following a shipwreck – and starts to cause confusion when the locals encounter him. Amidst all this, Olivia’s relative Sir Toby Belch and friends plot a humiliating revenge on the steward Malvolio.
Whilst the concept is chock full of potential, it doesn’t always hit the mark. There is a carefree exuberance associated with the Jazz Age (they were celebrating life following the ‘Great War’), which ties in perfectly with aspects of this play but is not called upon enough. The 1920s is a classic era for slapstick, for example, yet any physicality is sadly absent. It’s not a belly laugh production by any stretch, though it’s not unfunny – the humour is just more subtle than you usually find with this play. It does, however, do a good job of capturing both the darkness inherent in the play and underlying the 1920s; the war’s death toll was high and the youthful generation had taken a real hit. Death haunts Twelfth Night like a spectre, with Olivia mourning her father and brother, as well as Viola and Sebastian presuming the loss of the other.
Kate Lias’ set design is stunning. It is every inch a typical Art Deco jazz club, and simply takes your breath away when you first see it. Aside from one surprise alteration later on, it pretty much remains the same throughout and proves a versatile environment with its two levels. Tom White’s lighting adds to the sultry mood that befits a speakeasy, coming to life in big ensemble numbers. One design aspect I’m not so sure about is Malvolio’s ‘yellow stockings’ outfit. It’s a very visual representation of him exposing himself, certainly, but how the whole ensemble is meant to entice Olivia’s affections I don’t know.
The musicianship is incredible; all of the songs are performed by the actors themselves, switching instruments where necessary. A particularly memorable moment comes early on as Orsino (Jamie Satterthwaite) conducts the entire cast, giving tambourine duties to an unsuspecting victim in the front row, eventually leading to a cacophony of sound until “Enough! No more. ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.”
For me, the standout performance comes from Offue Okegbe as Feste. He begins the show on the upper level, overlooking events, but slowly ingratiates himself into the action more once Feste has been accepted back into Olivia’s service. Okegbe is charismatic and enigmatic, easily capturing the dark humour behind the Fool’s words.
My verdict? A different take on a well-known comedy, the sound and visuals are stunning – “if music be the food of love, play on!”
Twelfth Night ran at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from 23-27 May 2017. Full details of the tour (in rep with Romeo + Juliet) can be found on the official website.