Wils Wilson’s Twelfth Night, a second co-production between Bristol Old Vic and Edinburgh Lyceum, starts with a group of 60s revellers in an abandoned mansion deciding to read Shakespeare’s play – a framing device which feels weak in concept (it is very quickly dropped and adds little to the narrative itself or the rest of the play) but strong in execution. One by one the cast dissolve into the world of the play rather than the party, becoming characters rather than playing them, with that magic quality of all unrehearsed plays within a play where they know all their lines as if they are their own. With bohemia transforming so completely into Illyria it felt less like a play reading and more like a shared hallucination of the strange story.
This framing does add something to the gendering of the casting, with many more characters than normal being played by women. There is often a question with ‘untraditionally’* gendered casting about whether it is the gender of the character that changes or just that of the performer – while one character is definitely changed (Toby Belch becoming Lady Tobi) for the most part there are too many references to the genders of the characters to alter them. But at the same time the production, and especially the framing device, seems to keep a sense of suspension in the gender of the characters – like Schrödinger’s gender, characters may be male and female at the same time, or neither.
This production really reminds me of how great the women in this play are, giving us an earnestly passionate Viola, a wry and witty Olivia and a cheeky and playful Maria who here are joined by even more lady greatness, with the raucous Tobi, the sincere Sebastian and the powerful and dramatic Orsino. These added female roles work well, both simply for the niceness of seeing female interaction take such prominent place in a play and the added humour of all the ‘disguised as a man’ stuff.
Highlighted by the space and attention given to Maria and Tobi’s romance, it is noticeable that in the production every lover is a woman, every loner a man. This play is a comedy for the ladies and a tragedy for the gentlemen, with, by the end, each woman happily married and each man disappointed, from the heartbroken Antonio to the strangely gentle Malvolio to the pathetic Andrew Aguecheek.
I’m not sure I ever thought I’d say this about a Twelfth Night but Guy Hughes’ Andrew Aguecheek is the absolute standout of the show (even before his star turn at the end of the interval) – guileless and always trying so hard, it is a sympathetic portrayal of a man who knows he is nobody’s favourite and everybody’s fool.
While the text is well spoken it is the elements apart from the text where the production really sparkles. Both the gorgeous design (by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita) and the striking stage images are impressive, but what really stands out for me is the storytelling done around, between and behind the dialogue. From showing us Olivia’s mourning before her first scene – allowing us to see her real pain before seeing her bored and annoyed with the fool – to showing Antonio’s rescue and care of Sebastian, these sequences give additional weight to the many characters and relationships in the show. They also help keep all the subplots together, shoring up the timeline in a way that many Shakespeare plays, and especially Twelfth Night, struggle with.
Most of the music throughout is seamless and beautiful – scenes often hit their stride as the music swells beneath them and the songs between scenes are powerful and playful. Performers switch between characters and musical instruments, and seemingly a new instrument appears for every single scene. There is one song which sits uncomfortably among the rest – while good in and of itself, and popular with the audience with its sing-along chorus and actions, Malvolio’s triumphant song feels like a section of a pop musical plopped into the show. The scene of Malvolio’s ‘wooing’ of Olivia also seemed to strike a slightly off note – while all Malvolios undergo a transformation, in this production it seemed like a completely different character had walked onstage, with no connection to what had gone before. I struggled to connect with the character, and found that I neither felt he deserved his ill treatment nor pitied him for it.
There are plenty more bits of the production to be picked out – Dylan Read’s Pythonesque fool, Aly Macrae, who has the smallest parts and the audience laughing the entire time he’s onstage, the beautiful way the trees behind the windows seem to make the stage extend beyond its length. It is a really lovely and enjoyable production, which brings out both the ridiculous humour and the real sadness in the play.
*Of course the word ‘traditional’ here has pretty much no meaning, with the most ‘traditional’ presentation of the play having no women at all, and even since the time of boy players what is ‘traditional’ has changed with the seasons: in Victorian theatres it was expected that Puck would be a woman capering around in tights.
Twelfth Night is at the Bristol Old Vic until the 17th November. More information here.