Monday, 22 January 2007

Twelfth Night - Propeller 2007

Twelfth Night
Propeller, London, UK.

An all-male acting company can be a strange beast. Most plays include female roles, and the most delicate and petite of the company may find himself constantly cast as a woman. Not so with Propeller. Director of Twelfth Night, Edward Hall, casts solely on the basis of acting skills, with little regard for physical qualities, placing some unlikely looking women characters in his productions. In addition to this novel approach, no effort is made to disguise the fact that these are men playing women. Short hair stays short, stubble is visible, chest hair creeps over the top of dresses woefully lacking in bosom. Hall believes that by using only male actors 'a different kind of resonance' is created. By this means, another layer of identity is added to a play which is already full of disguises and gender-swapping.

A man playing a girl playing a boy: this is how it was done in Shakespeare's day. But in employing this method an actor must be careful that the female aspect is not lost entirely in the presence of the male. Viola (Tam Williams), is seen briefly in a nightgown and then spends the rest of the play suited and booted. Williams has a beautiful and rather striking face, with a sense of being able to lean either way, towards male or female. He plays Viola as sad and sincere; serious, innocent, and bereft. We feel for her when she has to woo in the name of her beloved, and when she cries and is comforted by him. And yet, as a woman, the sense of identification that I usually feel with her (and with characters such as Rosalind) is somehow missing. Viola, who should draw the threads of the story together, seems rather more peripheral than is usual.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Olivia, towers over the rest of the cast and looks decidedly odd in a dress. He plays the part with a slight edge of campness, but without ever descending into the realms of panto-dame. Yet I could not see the character as an actual woman. She came across more as a drag-queen - accentuated by her enchantment with Cesario, and with pretty-boy Sebastian (Joe Flynn). Chris Myles as Maria (the only one with obvious make-up - a white face and ghastly blue eyeshadow) was somehow the most convincing as a woman, played here as bawdy and shameless, and very much 'one of the boys'. We can perhaps say that sometimes a layer of identity is lost, or substituted, by the modern use of an all-male cast.

The revelry scenes involving scheming satyr Sir Toby (Jason Baughan) and the wonderfully baffled Sir Andrew (Simon Scardifield) are lively and highly entertaining, if at times evoking disgusted faces from the audience in reaction to the bottoms, bawdiness and barf on display. This production also provides us with a weathered and canny Feste (Tony Bell), an intense Orsino (Jack Tarlton), and a brazen Malvolio (Bob Barrett). The deception of Malvolio is amusing; his subsequent pursuing of Olivia hilarious, as he rips off his trousers to reveal yellow stockings, fishnets, and a studded leather, thonged, codpiece. But his imprisonment and torment are played in such a way as to make the audience extremely uncomfortable with what they are seeing. When the trickery is finally revealed, Malvolio's rage encompasses the audience, and we can't help but feel that perhaps we deserve it.

The production overall has a dreamlike and ritualistic quality to it. The set (designed by Michael Pavelka) is comprised of two vast wardrobes and an overly tall chest of drawers, covered in mirrors which distort the images that they reflect. These are moved about to create entrances and exits, sometimes concealing and sometimes revealing characters as they go in and out. Spare cast members make up a ghostly masked chorus, keenly watching the action from points around the stage throughout, reflecting the other unwatched-watchers in the play. The on-stage chorus also provide the music for the piece by means of humming, chanting, and various unusual instruments. Music and effects are deliberately made transparent, and this adds an extra sense of fascination to the piece.

Despite my reservations about the female characters, this is a production which I very much enjoyed. Everyone (and everything) is constantly on the move, and the whole play is suffused with excitement and innovation. My only real criticism is that whilst the trickery and revelry is amusing, much potential comedy between the would-be lovers is lost. Love, it would seem, in this version of Twelfth Night, is indeed a very serious thing. 

 This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.

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