English literature students pore over Twelfth Night in preparation for their final exams, while scholars in Oxbridge colleges and plate-glass Midwest universities tell us that the play is anything from a study in anarchy to a commentary on social divisions in Elizabethan England. What they forget is that Shakespeare wrote it – possibly at the suggestion of Queen Elizabeth – as an entertainment pure and simple: a piece of theatrical candy floss for the Court to enjoy on Twelfth Night 1602. It is why the sub-title is What You Will – Shakespeare regarded his own comedies so lightly that he didn’t care what titles they were given, As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing being other examples.
This production seeks no dark themes or hidden messages: it simply captures the joyous frivolity of the piece. It helps that it is set in the Jazz Age – and I say that as someone who is deeply suspicious of a Hamlet transported to Napoleonic times or a Coriolanus to Franco’s Spain. Such directorial foibles can be justified on one ground and one ground only: that they give a new insight into the play. This one does. Energy, enjoying the moment and challenging the established order characterised the Jazz Age, and full credit to director Paul Hart for seeing the parallels with Twelfth Night and bringing them out so successfully.
The music is toe-tappingly good, too, although there are few big set-pieces after the first scene and the text is for the most part undisturbed by jazzy musical accompaniment. One is especially grateful for this in the two outstanding scenes: the one where Viola and Orsino discuss the nature of love, beautifully played, and the one immediately following, where Malvolio finds the false letter from Olivia, which sometimes has all the actors static throughout but here is played with enormous energy, movement and sheer comedic pace. Also memorable is the scene where Malvolio first appears in yellow stockings and cross-garters – subtlety has no place here, and the audience love every minute of it.
Musical arranger Ned Rudkins-Stow does let rip with Feste’s song, ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’, to create a terrific finale.
There is not a weak link in the cast. Jamie Satterthwaite is an authoritative Orsino and Aruhan Galieva makes what she can of Olivia, surely Shakespeare’s most tiresome female character. Rebecca Lee is convincingly attractive not only as Viola but as her male alter ego, Cesario, subtly changing her gestures and body language. Victoria Blunt revels in mischief as Maria, while Stuart Wilde almost makes another rather insipid character, Sebastian, interesting.
Remarkably, some of the principals show great expertise on at least one instrument. Thus Mike Slader not only plays Andrew Aguecheek as a gauche and slightly camp Bertie Wooster, he is also an accomplished bassist. Offue Okegbe, whose Feste is in many ways the presiding genius of the play, is no mean guitarist. Even Peter Dukes, who is excellent as both pompous and deflated Malvolio, reveals his inner trombonist. Lauryn Redding, playing Sir Toby Belch, produces some splendidly fruity sounds from the bass saxophone as well as having a lovely singing voice.
Yes, Lauryn is a girl’s name and it has to be said that she plays the part extremely well, with great gusto, skill and earthiness. But it is the one aspect of this production that smacks of gimmickry. In the recent RSC Lear, I quickly got used to half-brothers Edmund and Edgar being played by an Afro-Caribbean and a blond English actor respectively, however genetically improbable, and in this production, the fact that the actor playing Feste is black is quite irrelevant. Gender is somehow trickier. ‘Sir Toby…she…’ in the same sentence just sounds odd, while some of Sir Toby’s bawdier remarks can anatomically apply only to a man. The same criticism can be made of Antonio becoming Antonia: one simply doesn’t believe that this girl is a ferocious sea-captain, a ‘Vulcan in the smoke of war’. This is no criticism of the actress playing the part, Emma McDonald, who has an outstanding speaking voice.
Even with this reservation, here is a Twelfth Night not to be missed. It is at Salisbury Playhouse on 22 June at 2.15 and 7.30, 23 June at 7.30 and 24 June at 2.15 and 7.30.