At certain points in Watermill Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, you may find yourself wondering why, exactly, it is set in the 1920s. But then you may look around at the gorgeously atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall, the dusty-gilt set (designed by Katie Lias) that’s perfectly matched to Wilton’s own opulent shabbiness; and then maybe the band, made up of the staggeringly multi-talented actors, will kick into a Postmodern Jukebox-style cover; and perhaps you will decide that it doesn’t really matter why. Because: it looks and sounds cool is why enough.
There’s more to the production than that, of course. The music dotted between the scenes is fantastic, and many of the performances match it. Lauryn Redding’s Sir Toby Belch is played as a woman – and thank goodness she is, because otherwise all the queerness would have been cut from the play with Emma McDonald playing gay pirate Antonio as a woman, Antonia. Toby introduces herself as the MC at the beginning of the show, and while this doesn’t prove literally true, she becomes the character with the strongest and canniest connection to the audience. She’s a warm, natural clown, plays about seven different instruments, and she makes a part that is too often grating, absolutely irresistible. The quartet of Toby, Maria, Andrew, and Feste truly epitomize the production’s best spirit of collaborative, multi-talented silliness, underpinned with sweetness when it counts (like the glances between Maria and Toby before their first kiss).
Over in the other plot, Jamie Satterthwaite hits the perfect pitch as an Orsino who is handsome and self-centred, fully convinced that he’s the model of sensitivity as he throws temper tantrums and flings bread at his servants. Director Paul Hart surrounds him with cringing yes-men, adding a surprising and fresh logic to his textually underdeveloped attraction to Viola: she’s the only person who tells him the truth.
The girl-disguised-as-a-boy who throws everything into chaos, Rebecca Lee’s Viola is frank and maybe too ingenuous. She has no sense at all of the power her words have on others – a skill Hart cleverly highlights by drawing attention to the matching way both Orsino and the mourning Countess Olivia fall for Viola-in-disguise thanks to her way with words.
But in the second half, the music largely falls away, and the production gets pulled, as so many productions of Twelfth Night do, into the black hole that is Malvolio. Peter Dukes plays the role with perfect pomposity in the first half, culminating in a jazzy cover that is too good to spoil. His entrance in an outrageous drag get-up at the top of the second half likewise had the audience in hysterics, and while his deluded strutting is certainly funny in itself, I struggled to shake the concern that people were, to a certain extent, just laughing at the fact of a man wearing heels and glitter.
His confinement in a dark room as punishment for his apparent madness – and for the fact that he basically sexually assaults Olivia, something I’ve yet to see any production fully acknowledge – is played as serious and sincerely cruel, with Dukes cowering and whimpering while covered in mud and, inexplicably, blood as the entire company performs an eerie kaleidoscope of torment. We’re obviously meant to pity him, an unearned emotional weight that sinks the pace and energy of the second half like a stone.
Redding’s charm, and the audience’s consistent alliance with her, contributes to this tonal difficulty. The switch into seeing Toby, Feste, and Maria as truly malicious, as we surely must, when their torments become so cruel, simply doesn’t fit with anything that has come before, nor does the show provide any time to settle into it after. It just drops in, out-of-place and unresolved.
Within seconds of the closing song and dance, though, the company’s melodies have washed those sour notes away. As is so often the case with this play, the production works best when it focuses on comedy, and applies the play’s inescapable shades of sadness with a light and subtle hand. Or at least with a fancy clarinet solo.
Twelfth Night is on until 22 September 2018 at Wilton’s Music Hall. Click here for more details.