“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous,there shall be no more cakes and ale?”(Twelfth Night II.3.115-16)
Twelfth Night is certainly a play that needs no real introduction and has certainly been a talking point nationally with some high-profile productions this year Original Impact have vamped up this classic tale with a thoroughly modern, and musical, twist under the direction of Sam Dunstan. Currently running at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell this production works contemporary music into the narrative of Twelfth Night to give an entertaining new take on one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays.
A tale of a shipwreck, pranks, and mistaken identity, Twelfth Night is a comedy that offers ample opportunity for creativity in its presentation. Shakespeare’s fondness for using separated twins to build up to a comic resolution (see also The Comedy of Errors) always presents a challenge for directors wishing to make the action on stage at least somewhat believable. Original Impact have opted to make Viola’s (Katie Turner) alter ego Cesario visually similar to her brother Sebastian (James Morley) through both characters wearing the same purple shirt and baseball cap. This rather minimal costume choice was an effective way of conveying the central gender-bending confusion around which the play revolves within the confines of a fringe theatre production. One notably interesting casting choice is the doubling of the Sea Captain that saves Viola and Antonio who saves and dutifully follows Sebastian with the same actor that plays Feste (Sian Eleanor Green). Green is the only actor in the production who is doubled at all, and this provides a connection between Feste and the events of the play out in Twelfth Night: events at which Feste continually suggests he has wider knowledge than any other character.
Music is central to this production. Upon entering the stage is bare and the Blue Elephant’s black-box theatre curtains have been pushed back to reveal black walls. In the corner is a small band set up containing keyboard, a trombone, a guitar, and a cajon. Framing this performance of Twelfth Night is a live music gig that is played in The Elephant (the pub at which Antonio is meant to meet Sebastian, and also a convenient nod to the current venue of this production) and the cast drop in and out of performing with the band and whilst not on stage are generally sat in that area observing the action. For the first act the band is a driving force for scene changes and this does provide an energy behind scenes, although this noticeably drops off going into the second half as more of the cast are required in scenes. Adding a modern twist the play kicks off with a rendition of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”, which becomes the song that leads Orsino (Andi Jashari) to ruminate on music’s nature as the “food of love”. The cast then add the declaration, “what happens in Illyria stays in Illyria” at the end of the song and go on to portray the storm that shipwrecks Viola and Sebastian through a hip-hop dance routine. A particular musical highlight early on in the play is when Viola makes the transition into Caesario. At this moment, a sombre version of Beyoncé’s “If I were a Boy” is played on the Trombone. Generically, the music throughout the show was quite the mix, varying from beat boxing to slow acoustic numbers. This meant that an element of consistency in the musical form was slightly lacking, which inhibited the music’s ability to carry the themes that Original Impact were trying to highlight in Twelfth Night, but all the music was ably performed and did combine to achieve an interesting new dimension to the play.
The choice of the pub/club setting of The Elephant combines with the only real part of the staging used in this production being a bar (mostly frequented by Sir Andre, Sir Toby, and Feste) brings out the alcoholic dimension of Twelfth Night: this is not a sober play. On the back wall of the theatre is painted a piece of bright graffiti reading, “To beer or not to beer, that is the question”: the answer this production gives is certainly “to beer”. The revellers routinely take shots and often have a beer bottle to hand in and around the action. Alcohol allows the persecution of Malvolio to be waivered as mere jest by Olivia (Eve Niker) and does call into question some of the characters’ actions. Feste is frequently downing shots with the other characters and also draws from a hipflask from the belt bag around her waist. The character of Fabian has been removed, with all his lines given to Feste. This gives Feste a greater role in the gulling of Malvolio orchestrated by Maria (Alexandria Anfield) than the character usually has. This is particularly evident in the garden letter scene, in which the box tree has been replaced with the bar and two stools, behind which Feste, Sir Toby Belch (Joshua Jewkes), and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dinos Psychogios) are hiding with beers in hand.
Malvolio (Timothy Weston) gave a great performance in his sombre portrayal of the puritanical steward. We see a vulnerable side to the character during his imprisonment and very much feel the wrongs he has suffered when he reveals them to Olivia in the final scene (unlike Feste who, in this production, still sees the whole thing more along the lines of laddish banter). While the addition of heels and “you’re so money supermarket” dance routine and short jean shorts to Malvolio’s cross-gartered yellow stockings entrance were a slight overkill, the scene was still undeniably very amusing. The duo of the laddish Sir Toby Belch (Joshua Jewkes) and sleazy DJ Sir Andrew Augecheek (Dinos Psychogios) provided well timed comic moments throughout the play. Sir Toby first enters from behind the bar in a pair of superman underpants while delivering the line, “I shall confine myself no finer than I am”, and this very much sets the scene for the way in which this Original Impact production explores the comedy of Twelfth Night’s debauchery.
This production tackles some new ground in its bid to update Shakespeare, and its use of music and alcohol to bring the more drunken aspects of the play to life is certainly an interesting take and largely well executed. The choice of Twelfth Night for a fringe theatre production is quite bold, as it is a play that is usually done with the aid of some very complicated sets (the current production at the National Theatre is definitely evidence of that, and you can read culturised’s thoughts on that here), but this stripped-back production definitely has something to offer, and proves what is possible with a strong cast and some directorial creativity.
Twelfth Night will be running until 6 May. For more information and to buy tickets visit here.