Pros: Lively and farcical interpretation of a quintessential Shakespearean comedy.
Cons: Hold on to your drinks or you may find them spilled during some capering mischief, especially if you’re in the front row.
Following the pleasure of reviewing the Merely Players for last month’s As You Like It, I was curious how they would approach Twelfth Night. True to form, the acting was energetic and fast-paced, focusing on the absurd humour of the characters’ situations. If you prefer a Twelfth Night that balances the tragic elements of the script with the comic ones, this may not be the show for you. If you enjoy being overcome by paroxysms of laughter, on the other hand, it would be difficult to trump this wildly funny production. Another charming element is the barbershop quartet which sets the musical theme with reinterpretations of classic tunes.
Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night revolves around a set of twins and mistaken identities. Viola (Henri Merriam) and Sebastian (Ben Chamberlain), twins alike as mirror images, become separated during a shipwreck. Both believing the other dead, they are caught in grief. Viola decides to bide her time in the country where she’s come ashore. Believing her situation as a woman travelling alone to be too dangerous, she chooses to dress as a man, call herself Cesario, and become a servant in the house of local nobleman Count Orsino (Rhys Bevan). Merriam gives a rare pragmatism and vitality to Viola, a role which is often more dreamily self-reflective. Her first and only task in her new servitude is to help Orsino woo the lady Olivia (Kristin Atherton), who has sworn she will mourn for seven years the recent deaths of her father and brother. I always find it telling that nobody seems to find both their sudden demises, which leave Olivia mistress of the entire estate, suspicious. Especially so in this production where Atherton’s Olivia is full of merriment and charm more than grief. Unfortunately for Viola, who finds herself falling for Count Orsino, Olivia develops a passion for Viola’s alter ego Cesario. Bevan’s Orsino is a flighty youth given to fits of intemperate and contradictory passions, but he is sweetly endearing.
The real heroes of this production, though, are the buffoonish clowns of Olivia’s household: her uncle Sir Toby (David Gerits), her pernicious suitor Sir Andrew (Charlotte Donachie), her clown Feste (Luke Barton) and her waiting-woman Maria (Emmy Rose), all of whom engage in a drunkenly wicked game of one-upmanship to goad the condescending steward Malvolio (Jack Baldwin) out of their mistress’s favour. To do this, they set a trap which causes Malvolio to put himself in a most compromising position. Baldwin’s Malvolio veers from a puffed-up overly-enunciated puritan to a grinning, yellow underpants-flaunting libertine without flinching. His ability to maintain a courtly decorum in early scenes with the antics of Gerits, Donachie, Rose, and Barton raising merry hell around him deserves special mention.
Meanwhile, Sebastian has arrived with his new friend Antonia (Hannah Ellis), leading to some serious confusion among the townsfolk as to why Cesario is suddenly behaving so oddly. Casting Ellis as Antonia (usually a man’s part) breathes new depth into the love she swears for Sebastian. This is often portrayed in a brotherly fashion, but here we are left in no doubt as to the erotic character of Antonia’s love. This leaves an open question about what happens to her after Sebastian and Olivia find themselves in a mutually beneficial situation—unable to part lips, that is. Chamberlain and Atherton’s scenes together are comically spicy.
Eventually all is put right, Sebastian and Viola are reunited under circumstances which surprise them both, love blooms between various people, and Malvolio is restored to his former position of dignity. Sort of. However you interpret the fates of various characters at the finish, it’s a very enjoyable, hilarious, and musical journey.
Produced by: The Merely Players
Director: Scott Ellis
Booking Until: 10 Aug 2014
Booking Link: http://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/merely_shakespeare_summer_season
Box Office: 020 7258 2925