Twelfth Night is a popular Shakespeare comedy with a sadistic streak. The noxious treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night stops the play being one of free-wheeling silliness and makes it something much more unpleasant. The new production by Pell Mell Theatre at The Space increases the nastiness of the behaviour towards the put-upon steward, making the whole cast complicit in his humiliation. Yet Andrew Seddon’s Malvolio is the star of the piece. Pre-downfall he is unsmiling and precise, his gait and voice recalling the bohemian figure of Withnail and almost pre-figuring his enforced breakdown. Ella Garland’s free-wheeling Viola is delightful, whilst the fool Feste is energetically played by Lawrence Boothman with – to raid film history again – the maniacal smiles of Toulouse-Lautrec in Baz Lerhman’s Moulin Rouge.
Shakespeare’s plot concerns the survivors of a shipwreck. Viola is washed up in Illyria, but believes her brother Sebastian drowned. She immediately decides to…you’ve guessed it… dress as a man, call herself Cesario and get a job with Orsino the local nobleman. Her duties are not onerous; she is sent to court Olivia in Orsino’s name. Meanwhile, Olivia’s steward Malvolio is disliked by his fellows and suffers a practical joke that ends unpleasantly. To lighten things, Viola’s brother does turn up. But he is mistaken for Cesario and some low-level hilarity ensues.
Twelfth Night contains insights into human nature that remain relevant today; cosmetics, love and tabloid readers are all Shakespearean targets. But, as Shakespeare recognised when he inserted the line If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction, the play is full of moments requiring strong powers of disbelief suspension. Chief amongst these is the conceit that Viola and Sebastian are so alike that they are mistaken for each other. Not from a distance in a crowded, smoky room, but by lovers and friends. Pell Mell have made this easier to accept. With the siblings both wearing pale Pierrot costumes, pointy hats and peculiar make up, the various mistaken identities are easier to credit.
The production adds some humour to that on the page. Angus Howard gives Sir Andrew some boisterous physical comedy as he prepares boxer-like for his duel, whilst Malvolio’s yellow stockinged outfit is an entertaining sight. The dumb chorus wisp their way elegantly around the bric-a-brac laden stage, intervening in the affairs of the characters whilst Lucy Laing’s Olivia sits in a makeup tent, like a star awaiting her big moment.
There are problems with viewing this production in The Space. The theatre is an old Presbyterian church building and has a low stage, yet most of the action takes place in front of this at the same level as the audience. The seats are not raked – though some are raised up – and from where I sat the actors were often hard to see. When the action was lowered to the ground – as for example in Malvolio’s key scene when he discovers a letter – the play was reduced to disembodied voices. Those who could see were laughing but more thought could have been given to make sure the entire audience could experience the whole play fully.
So sit at the front, prepare to accept some very unlikely plot devices and allow the high-tempo Feste to lead you into a world where people are not what they seem. It will be good practice for life.
Twelfth Night is on until August 8th