Despite the title signalling the traditional end of the festive season, this Shakespearean romantic comedy is perfect fayre for a high summer evening spent in an outdoor setting. Tonight, the gem that is Walkden Gardens, hidden away in suburban Sale, provides the verdant backdrop to Shakespeare’s tale of cross dressing and mistaken identity, the Duke’s Theatre Company delighting the audience with a funny and farcical production but missing the opportunity to be truly interesting in exploring underlying themes.
The Duke’s Theatre Company is the grand title for the small company of six actors and crew currently playing a fifty date tour of England and Wales, covering everywhere from the Lake District to Land’s End throughout the Summer. There has been a proliferation of such companies over the last decade, often allowing young actors their first experience of both touring and life on the professional stage, and tonight is no exception with the young cast doubling up roles and moving through the piece at a frenetic pace.
Director Martin Parr begins by paring down the plot to the bare bones, now concentrate and take a deep breath…. Viola (Joanne McGarva) is shipwrecked on the coast of illyria, disguised as a male servant Cesario she is employed by the Duke of Orsino (Ben Simon) who is in love with Countess Olivia (Beatrice John). Orsino gradually falls for Cesario, as does Olivia, who is loved by her snobby Steward Malvolio (Noah Marullo) and also Sir Andrew Aguecheek (William Marr) who battle for her affections. Viola’s brother Sebastian (Jenni Walker) also survived the shipwreck and is loved by Antonio (also Marullo) who is mistaken for Cesario throughout. Eventually there is a happy resolution for everyone, apart from Malvolio and Antonio who are respectively angry and bereft….. Did you get all that?
The simplified structuring of the complicated story allows it to be performed in just two hours including a twenty minute interval. For an audience arriving with picnic baskets and prosecco this allows elements of the romantic comedy to be easily digested and the plot followed by everyone present. However, the loss of nearly a third of the original text does present some problems in plot development, the concentration on the main love triangle of Orsino/Olivia/Cesario (Viola), leaves the remaining storylines starved of attention and development, with Feste reduced to one scene when tormenting Malvolio and the Sebastian/Antonio romance never fully explored. In addition Parr chooses to display the show as a slapstick comedy, again delighting the audience by utilising well worn tropes (the letter scene using a windbreak as disguise works particularly well) that would look at home in a Whitehall farce. Whilst this all works well in the opening half, it leaves the play nowhere to go after the interval when the mood should be noticeably darker when the lies and dissembling are discovered.
The lack of contrasting tones and the editing of the text therefore left some of the portrayals feeling decidedly uneven, most notably with Malvolio, a misunderstood character who should be a priggish snob and later exit with genuine anger to shock the audience. Whilst Marullo was hilarious in the farcical interpretation, particularly when giving us a ‘Barry White disco’ interpretation off the ‘yellow cross gartered’ scene, he later paid the price for constantly breaking the fourth wall (admittedly to engage one annoying audience member) by losing the pathos and sympathy for his character at the conclusion. Simon gave a strong performance, particularly delicious in his portrayal of Sir Toby Belch as a lairy cockney complete with loud checked suit and bowler hat, baiting the snobbish Malvolvio and leading him to his ultimate humiliation. Another positive was the interspersing of musical interludes throughout the production, the conversion of some of the text into song lyrics worked extremely well and gave the opportunity to both Walker and McGarva to display their fine vocal talents, supported by the more gravelly tones of Simon, leading the audience in a sing song rendition of ‘Nothing that is so, is so’.
The reliance on the comedic also overshadowed the interesting interpretation that Parr had chosen when exploring the obvious gay themes that are present within the piece. This lack of conviction is best illustrated when Cesario loving applies suntan lotion to the back of Orsino, the clearly reciprocated lust that Orsino feels for the ostensibly ‘male’ character is well observed but however much his ‘thoughts may be ripe with mischief’ there is no follow through. The cavalier abandonment of the Sebastian/ Antonio romance, the only explicitly gay relationship that Shakespeare wrote, was an opportunity to make this piece something far more interesting but was sacrificed at the expense of a quick laugh from an audience who had come to be gently entertained and not challenged.
However, as we packed up our portable chairs and drained our glasses of the last dregs of wine, I observed a happy and contented audience of over three hundred people, the light, cheery nature of this production perfectly encapsulated what this type of ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ is for; less a critical appraisal of performance, style, adaptation and technical prowess, much more a delightful shared experience under a clear summer evening sky.
Overall, a well executed farce interpretation which would serve as a good introduction to the play for a family audience.
More about Duke’s Theatre Company and details of their current tour can be found at https://www.thedukestheatrecompany.co.uk/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 30th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: