Although Twelfth Night – the day – is technically in the depths of winter, Twelfth Night – the play – has always been one of Shakespeare’s sunniest and summeriest (??!) comedies. The location is the invented Illyria (though in antiquity it was an actual part of modern Croatia) so it is entirely appropriate that the production by Tower Theatre Company basks in the glow of the Eastern Mediterranean and has been updated to the 1970s – an era when the British were first venturing abroad and discovering the Greek archipelago.
The evocatively realised and colourful costuming of Laura Fuchs and Lynda Twidale is entirely in tune with the setting of the beachside location (Rob Hebblethwaite and Jessa Evans) with its sand and rocky outcrop. This is immediately striking and is flanked by a flower strewn bower for Orsino’s court and a stone clad, azure blue shuttered cottage for Olivia’s house out of which I half expected Meryl Streep to burst forth singing Mama Mia. There’s no Abba, but never fear there are plenty of recognisable 70s hits and some beautifully arranged settings of Shakespeare’s words courtesy of Tamara Douglas-Morris. The droll Joël Cottrell as strolling minstrel and jester Feste gets the lion’s share of these, accompanying himself on guitar and joined for an uplifting finale by other members of the cast playing a variety of stringed instruments.
Before that though, there’s the convoluted plot involving a love quadrilateral, confused identities and gender fluidity to entertain and amuse. Emma Miles’s clear headed direction has ensured that the twists and turns are easy enough to follow. If the production tends to emphasise the lighter, brighter aspects of the play (there’s great fun had with a beach umbrella in the letter scene), there’s still enough rueful melancholy left to keep events in balance. The production is blessed with the fortuitous physical similarities between Bella Hornby and her twin played by Tower newcomer Callum Smith – “an apple cleft in two” indeed. And the former delivers Viola’s set piece speeches with an understated conviction that contrasts nicely with the more raucous comedy propelled by the machinations of servant Maria (Sangita Modgil). There’s an excellent double act from Richard Hague as aging biker Sir Toby and Matthew Ibbotson as a beanpole Sir Andrew struggling to keep his dignity and his money out of his compadre’s clutches; I’ve seldom seen the parts played better. There’s plenty to admire in the rest of the cast too with a particularly stylish Olivia (Sophie Platts-Martin) evolving into a love struck simpering giggler.
Of course, any production of this play stands or falls on its Malvolio or in his case, following the lead of the National Theatre’s recent production, Malvolia; however, this is no mere recreation of Tamsin Grieg’s turn. Ruth Sullivan puts her own stamp on the role and makes for a risibly censorious steward, all pursed lips, stiff legged waddling gait and horrendous forced smile. There’s also a little touch of Hilda Ogden in the night time revels scene. Mostly dressed in a contrasting sombre brown and regularly shaking the sand off her shoes, she appears like a trussed up turkey cock in her cross gartered canary yellow stockings and an array of flowers (one of which I noticed was very artfully placed) to hilarious effect.
Twelfth Night is undoubtedly one of the most frequently performed plays of the Shakespeare canon, so it was good to see it coming up fresh and sparkling and so well designed. If Shakespeare isn’t usually your thing then this just might alter your opinion and if you’re a seasoned veteran there is still plenty to delight the eye, the ear and the mind.