Twelfth Night – Reviewed

Caroline Gaunt braves the North Eastern ‘summer’ to experience Thrust Stage in action.

Thrust Stage Theatre Twelfth Night Shakespeare

Twelfth Night is a Summer Shakespeare standard – a charming case of mistaken identity with some of Shakespeare’s most inspired comic creations to guide us through the narrative. Thrust Stage’s production, although never quite making up its mind whether it wants to be a pantomime or a more subtle retelling of the tale, is delightful – charmingly irreverent with some stellar performances.

Modernised adaptations of Shakespeare are so ubiquitous that I generally find them uninspiring, but the production team’s pledge to update Twelfth Night into ‘the glitz and glamour of the roaring Twenties’ was an excellent premise on which to base the production. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most effervescent and farcical comedies, a story which would have easily transferred into the hedonism of the 1920’s. I found, however, that the idea had been taken on somewhat half-heartedly. This was disappointing, not only because I believe modernised productions require full commitment to the premise in order to be convincing, but also because the twenties are such a hugely distinctive era in terms of style, behaviour and general ethic, with far more to distinguish them than just flapper dresses and strands of pearls. Director Matt Dann could have extended the idea a lot further than he did: as it was, ill-informed audience members could have been forgiven for missing the concept altogether.

However, ultimately, the show as it stands is strong enough to override this initial irritation. Dann may have made some omissions in the modernisation but proves himself elsewhere to be an excellent director, most notably in his use of the Botanic Gardens, a beautiful and evocative space to start with, but considerably enhanced by Dann’s intelligent blocking. Not confining themselves to conventional spaces, the actors move around the gardens artfully and with considerable naturalism, and it is pleasing to note that they never become inaudible or unclear, which tends to be a huge issue in al fresco theatre. Whilst I wish that Dann and his production team had invested more time in sourcing props which didn’t break – nothing like a plastic pole collapsing in the middle of a sword fight to jolt an audience back down to earth – the general aesthetics of the production are pleasing.

The actors are all well cast, but two stand out from the outset. Elizabeth O’ Connor as Viola is simply brilliant, combining an impressive command of the language with a cheeky humour and an incredibly subtle and poignant handling of Viola’s more emotional scenes, which is all the more impressive since the unpredictability of outdoor acoustics often compels actors to become more exaggeratedly emphatic in order to be convincing (more on that later). She is eminently believable and as such consistently captivating. Joe Skelton, as Feste the clown, provides a master class in physical comedy pitched at exactly the right level, and keeps the audience in the palm of his hand from his first appearance to the curtain call. He is, quite simply, a very likeable performer, which probably has an awful lot to do with the incredibly controlled and natural way he negotiates the space around him and a general sense that he is entirely committed to the role he’s playing.

Simon Gallow, as Sir Toby Belch, is slightly more problematic. There’s no question that he’s an excellent physical performer, but whilst this is often the source of his many moments of excellence, it is, paradoxically, also a factor which marks him out as incongruous. On the one hand, his constant gurning and pantomime-esque characterisation succeed in making Shakespeare’s lines relevant and amusing for a modern day audience: just when Sir Toby appears to have reached the pinnacle of the ridiculous, Gallow whips out a further exaggerated gesture or facial expression and the audience once again erupt with laughter. That said, in a production that can usually be commended for its subtlety, I found Gallow’s performance to be frequently jarringly exaggerated, and as he often over-balanced his scenes as a direct result, perhaps a little out of place. But then as Sir Toby is hardly one of Shakespeare’s most nuanced or sensible characters it is hard to imagine a less extreme characterisation.

Thrust Stage should be commended for managing to bring a fresh adaptation of Twelfth Night to Durham Student Theatre – albeit not in the way that Dann had perhaps originally intended. Nevertheless, it’s so enjoyable, funny, and so impressively natural for such an archaic story, that the positives consistently override the negatives.