Saturday, July 20

Twelfth Night – Shakespeare North Playhouse

As we approach the second anniversary of the opening of the Shakespeare North Playhouse, we can begin to assess its impact both within the local area and upon the wider northern theatrical scene. By teaming up with Not Too Tame, an independent theatre company based in Warrington for this version of ‘Twelfth Night’, we can see their intent to use of local voices to retell Shakespearean stories in an accessible way, an endeavour that was only partially successful in this production.

Shakespeare’s tale of misunderstanding and cross dressing has undergone a renaissance in its popularity over the last decade, with the opportunity for directors to overtly queer the storyline and allow LGBTQ+ themes to be explored in the writing in an effective and sympathetic way. Whilst Director Jimmy Fairhurst touches on these ideas, his decision to place the play in the modern music industry allows him to draw on his own background in this sector, focussing more on the Diva nature of stars and their entourages, bringing a strong rock sensibility to proceedings.

Orsino (Reuben Johnson) and Olivia (Purvi Parmar) play the Duke and Countess of Illyria as rock stars, surrounding themselves with a sycophantic coterie of hangers on and flunkies. Into this mix are thrown Viola (Georgia Frost) and Sebastian (Tom Sturgess), siblings that are separated during a shipwreck, disguising themselves as servants and unwittingly becoming the objects of desire for the lovestruck Orsino and Olivia before all is happily resolved at the conclusion. This tale gives ample opportunity for the minor characters to provide comic relief, Sir Toby Belch (Jack Brown), Maria (Kate James), Sir Andre Aguecheek (Johnson again) carry most of the water in this regard, with Feste (Louise Haggerty) acting as MC and Chorus rather than the traditional Fools role of telling truth to power.

The production is strongest when it adheres to the original plot and language and the young company acquit themselves well in their understanding and delivery of the verse. When it strays into more modern territory it comes unstuck, the addition of modern asides and profanities, whilst initially amusing, quickly grate and by the conclusion raise little of the intended humour. In a similar vein, the raps added in used doggerel rhymes to entertain, without adding light to the plot. The balance of the play was further skewed by heavy focus on Viola before the interval, leaving the Sebastian/Antonia storyline under-explained, changing Antonia to a female was a decision which removed the homoerotic undertones of the original plot line to the overall detriment of the comedy. The original rock premise gradually dwindled as the production progressed and by the conclusion was a distant memory. All of this felt like an unnecessary attempt to democratise and be inclusive to a younger audience, the Director should trust that they have both the intellect and stamina to understand without resorting to simplifications that detract from, rather than add to, the overall performance.

This desire to see a clear and ostensibly traditional performance of the play was best illustrated in the performance of Les Dennis in the role of Malvolio. Stand up comedians have a long and honourable tradition of effectively playing this part and Dennis adds himself to this list. Rejecting the opportunity to simply play the priggish manservant for laughs, he offers a nuanced and layered portrait of a man descending into a chaotic Kafkaesque world, where by the conclusion he is doubting his own sanity. The pathos of the portrayal treads the line excellently between comedy and tragedy, the initial giggles and physical humour giving way to plaintive appeals and clownish expressionism, made all the more tragic by the superbly comic costuming.

Overall, this is a ‘Twelfth Night’ that should appeal to a broad spectrum of theatrical audiences and chimes well with the mission statement of Shakespeare North; purists will wish for tradition but judging by the audience reaction on press night they were in the minority.

Playing until 29th June,

Reviewer: Helen Harrison

Reviewed: 11th June 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.