Now to clear this up from the start, this post isn’t about a Scottish band called Wet Wet Wet although Love is all Around [except for Malvolio] (forever tainted for me, in a good way, by Love Actually..) would be a possible outro for Twelfth Night, the play which is the focus of this post.
Some weeks ago now, I popped to see Twelfth Night over in Oxford, it was a great finale to a long day spent scouring manuscripts at the Bodleian. The print from earlier in the day leap off the page in front of me in the late summer twilight. Having read some reviews of performances earlier in the run I think I’m lucky to have seen it in its final week – when the actors had settled in well to the venue and their lines. This was another outdoor theatre experience which I’m beginning to enjoy – definitely not the same as seeing a play at an indoor and more traditional theatre, or like the Globe which to me seems a kind of hybrid. Yes, it’s very much outdoors, the frequent flights heading to Heathrow are a constant reminder of that, but I think it also has many elements much more reminiscent of an indoor venue. The globe an outdoor-indoor, traditional-untraditional venue. No, I’m not writing in contradictions to make a point, nor am I attempting a bad quarto version of Dickens’ A Tales of Two Cities – honest. It just strikes me as a venue which fuses elements of traditional stage and outdoor performance. An amalgamation or mash-up if you will. Perhaps it has something to do with its solid structure containing the performance within a specific space outdoor brought somehow within some of the confines of an indoor venue, or perhaps it’s just me. It certainly doesn’t contain all the elements, as I’m assured by those hardy theatregoers who’ve been present when Shakespeare has kicked up a storm mid-production, or at least the heavens have opened. Thankfully, I was luckier with Twelfth Night which opened to a chilly, but dry August evening. Unlike the Globe and like the other open air Shakespeare productions I’ve seen this summer the stage was only loosely marked – more by the direction of the audience’s chairs than a set designated space (though the Globe’s approach to jumping into the audience now and again breaks down, of course, their more open stage). The production, by English Repertory Theatre, took place in the courtyard of Oxford Castle, making plenty of use of the hill behind (the site of the original castle) and the steps which lead to its summit. The steps, reminiscent of a mini amphitheatre were the main stage punctuated with entrances and exits and odd bits of action spread around the wider edges of the stage area.
The following images should, I hope, give some idea of the stage space.
This was a wet, a very wet production. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been to a production quite as wet as this one. I mean this in the most literal of senses. Sure I was drenched in some Shakespeare during the performance but I’m talking about getting soaked. Shakespeare can be a rollercoaster but this was closer to the Jurassic park water chute at Universal Studios (no I haven’t snuck this in just so I can slip a dinosaur into the post, those who’ve been on the ride will know exactly what I mean in terms of wetness, and for those who haven’t this should give you a rough idea). Needless to say it’s wet, wet, wet. But so were the actors in Twelfth Night and, thanks to my bright idea of sitting on the front row so was I for much of the performance. I’d just about steamed off and then I was hit by another wave of water. The blue bit you can see in the second image functioned as the sea at the beginning of the play and any time anyone fancied a dip, well not quite. As the evening drew on I did feel a little for the clearly shivering actors sodden to the skin, canvas shoes and all. It was a long paddling pool at the foot of the steps which led up to the small stage area, where the table and chairs can be seen in the second image. The gate in the first image allowed access for the actors to the top of the castle mound. The odd game of badminton took place and it allowed many dimensions of action in the production as well as parallel plots to be played out simultaneously, we saw Viola fall in love with Orsino as she playfully ran about with him and played the odd game of blind’s man’s buff. The castle mound and step-stage functioned a bit like split screens and allowed fluid interaction with subplot and main characters.
But back to this wetness business for a moment. A sprinkler bookended this production, water from glasses was thrown intermittently from hands, and the odd shot from some of the comic characters crotches, Feste and Toby were the common culprits. But the paddling pool encouraged the most water action which characters being thrown into it, the shipwreck took place here too as the two twins at either end were clumsily revived (somewhat shattering the reveal of Sebastian as alive at the plays finale as it was clear from the offset he had survived). Many characters ran up an down too causing an almost continual stream which hit the feet of at least the first few rows of seats. But it’s all part of the fun. The production itself thankfully was far from damp.
The strapline printed in the production’s programme was “why this is midsummer madness” and that did seem to be the tone of the production. Though something tells me “wet your gentle thoughts” might have been even more appropriate! It was a real mix of modern musical numbers and classic Shakespeare play with a twist.
The play opened with some sea shanties and the theme from Captain Pugwash, modern versions of old classics, the inclusion of many modern classics – often in the place of the songs printed in Shakespeare’s plays (Shakespeare purists look away now) with songs like all you need is love and even saw the audience singing along to “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” as Toby conducted and rallied us on. This fitted well with the drunken pub style singing that the director had chosen to associate with the comic character as they congo-ed around the stage singing in raucous tones and throwing their drink everywhere but their face. The comic figures were remarkably patriotic sporting union jack adorned waistcoats, and hats. The costumes in general were a mix of modern seaside attire and summer gear with more formal modern dress for Olivia and Malvolio.
Continuing the less than pure adaptation strategy the play begun in scene two of act one, although the food of love proved a cue for the return to scene one. This was just one of the many alterations of plot and many of the minor characters were cut (their lines were often spoken by the female priest), such is the beauty of Shakespeare. Undoubtedly each production you see of his plays will be different even if it’s the same play. The play wasn’t simply used as a springboard but was chopped and changed throughout the production – in part presumably because of a smallish cast, though nothing like the small cast I saw do As You Like It earlier this summer.
Malvolio was definitely, for me, the character which evoked most empathy in this production, his humiliation in a pair of very vivid yellow cross-garted legs as the weak and vulnerable character, behind the obedient, highly-strung and strong servant that opens the play, was revealed. We well and truly witnessed the loosening of his strings as the trousers dropped following his deception at the hands of Maria and co.
Probably further enhanced by his cold shivers. In the most disturbing moment in the play, Malvolio was subjected to what I can only describe as torture which was closest to water “therapy” that equates to torture, as he was periodically almost drowned before being grabbed by the scruff of the neck and flung back into the water by apparently comic characters. He appeared almost like the blinded Gloucester in King Lear as he blundered around blindfolded and all disorientated before being stood on a chair and publically mocked by all around. His creepy smile, and charmingly foolish attempts to woo, were the icing on the cake. It left an impression at the end of the play of a very tragic Malvolio brought to the point of lunacy by the lies of Toby, Maria and others. His shaking trouserless figure was an image of poignancy as he stood amidst the happy revelations and pairing at the end of the play. If an attempt to challenge the audience to consider what they were really laughing at when watching the comic characters, then this was successful and certainly gave a new dimension to the laughter that had followed Malvolio’s “I’ll thrust..” as he pulled down his trousers to reveal yellow stockings. However, the image I was left with was almost harrowing and gave a clear impression of the manipulated Malvolio, a casualty of the play’s otherwise generally comic atmosphere.
My favourite scene of all was by far Malvolio’s letter scene which, although given poignant undertones thanks to the action which follows it, also comprised much of what was good about this production. It demonstrated fantastic use of the outdoor setting, as his plotting friends under the guise of gardening, looked on. For some reason that I fail to understand they assumed Mexican disguise for their gardening roles. They were hidden badly (deliberately) in the bushes at the bottom of the castle mound and pretend to prune and garden with rakes, secateurs whilst giggling to themselves (joined by the audience) at the easily convinced nature of Malvolio – to add to the dramatic irony Malvolio seemed as ignorant of their presence on stage as he was of their hand in the letter dropping.
Nothing was quite as it seemed, as you would expect with Twelfth Night and whilst sometimes this had dark undertones, the general atmosphere was one of comic joviality and laughter as we absorbed the Shakespeare from head to toe.