What a crowd descended on Oxford last Saturday night! Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by not only Lady Duncansby and Sir William (her butler), and the Duchess of Dallington, but also Lady Lichfield and her daughter the ex-Duchess of Dudley who’s relinquished her title due to the fact that she has ideas above her station (apparently her station is Knightsbridge, not Smethwick Galton Bridge). Even our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra together with their Mum and Dad were there. Where’s Hello magazine paparazzi when you need them?
I’m beginning to lose track of the number of Twelfth Nights we’ve seen recently. There was the English Repertory Theatre at Oxford Castle last year, where all the cast were sick and Sir Andrew Aguecheek had only been in the role for a day and so read from the book; there was Filter Theatre’s Rock concert version, 90 minutes and no interval; and there was the RSC’s more traditional production with Richard Wilson immaculately cross-garter’d and a genuinely funny Feste. Even the Oxford Shakespeare Company, whose Twelfth Night we were watching (hope you’re keeping up) had previously presented the play in 2008, in a very funny and camp production where Malvolio (James Lavender in the same role that he plays in this production) ended up wearing little more than a thong.
For some reason, this current production, directed by Nicholas Green, seems to be played a little less for laughs, and a little more on the brooding side. Maybe it’s the gypsy folk music that is scattered throughout the play that somehow – for me, at least – brings the energy of the show down a bit. Orsino’s requirement that the food of love keeps on playing is an invitation to the cast to let loose on a very moody concoction of instruments that never, to my relatively ignorant ears, quite seem to be properly in tune. I enjoyed the melody and structure of “the rain it raineth every day”, but I felt the other songs were a little, well, drab. It was almost as though the jollity allowance had been rationed in some kind of arts funding governmental austerity measure.
We also found the play a little harder to follow than usual. Two or three of us, at least, didn’t understand the initial situation of the shipwreck and the apparent loss of Viola’s brother at sea; therefore an awful lot of the first half of the play made precious little sense to them at all. I was explaining to Secret Agent Code November in the interval that Viola was talking about the shipwreck with the sea captain in her first scene. “Oh, he was a sea captain,” she exclaimed, as I could visually imagine plot elements finally falling into place before her very eyes. For all its rough edges, last year’s Oxford Castle version did at least make the shipwreck very clear (by use of a paddling pool and lots of immersion). This OSC production is strictly dry land only.
There was another unfortunate element of confusion – of which I think Code November fell foul – in that the aformentioned James Lavender (playing Malvolio and assorted sea captains) and Robert Madeley (playing Feste and an officer) physically resemble each other, even to the extent of having the same coloured beard. In a production like this you expect cast members to double up roles anyway, but that made it doubly difficult to follow at first. Mrs C told me later she was able to work out which was which because one had a close-cropped beard, and the other was more free-flowing. But it wasn’t very helpful to have this confusion early on. It definitely resulted in some sacrifice of clarity in getting the story across.
It sounds as though I didn’t really enjoy it, doesn’t it? But I assure you I did. It’s always a delight to be sat in the gardens of Wadham College, with friends and family, post-picnic, enjoying open-air Shakespeare. It’s one of life’s little luxuries. And there were plenty of entertaining scenes and performances to relish. James Lavender’s Malvolio is a very believable study in pompous officialdom, primly checking his laptop, suffering no fools (how ironic is that), but swiftly losing his inhibitions when he believes Olivia fancies him. In this production, Malvolio’s “letter scene” is a superb piece of comedy, with Feste, Belch and Aguecheek by turns hiding and observing behind the gypsy caravan with great physical comic timing. Malvolio’s suppliers of cross-garters turned out to be from the S&M department at Ann Summers; who knew? I’m always struck just how cruel the characters are to Malvolio – yes, he’s a silly ass and probably deserves taking down a peg or two, but his humiliation is abject and complete, and then to be chucked in prison for further deprivation really is cruelty piled on cruelty. By the way, the prison scenes were staged brilliantly, with Mr Lavender’s mouth simply appearing through holes in anonymous black plastic sheeting – it reminded me of the opening sequence of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Credit to Mr Lavender, he held the commitment to Malvolio’s character all the way through, and his final protestations to Olivia and rancour against his taunters were full of dignity and quiet revenge. I’m completely on Malvolio’s side on this one. The others seem to get away with it scot-free. Mr Lavender gives an enormous boost to any open air Shakespeare. We saw him four years ago in the OSC’s Comedy of Errors and he stole every scene.
I really liked Alice Coles as Viola; for the most part in Twelfth Night you only see her as Cesario, and a most impishly fetching young knave she made – definitely the prototype for Blackadder II’s Bob. Great acting with her eyes when she suspects she’s going to be found out; and her loving relief at having met Sebastian again was really quite touching. That was the other stand-out scene; at the end where all the true identities are revealed and the relationships that have developed just need a little re-focussing to get back to where they were before. The Secret Agent was hooting in delight at that scene. Molly Roberts was also excellent as Olivia, imperiously out of humour should anyone dare to knock at her door but subsequently girlishly excited at falling in love with Cesario. And I also really enjoyed the performance of Marie Fortune in a number of roles but primarily as Maria, where she really got to grips with the character’s earthy humour and sexually forward behaviour.
Some of the men’s roles were played in a style very different from how they are normally portrayed. For instance, George Haynes was entertaining as a slightly less-foppish-than-usual Aguecheek, but still nicely conveying his timidity in conflict and ineffectuality in everything else. Similarly, William Findley’s Sir Toby was less gross than usual, coming across as a rather friendly drunk with a touch of Irish charm rather than the larger-than-life grotesque that you sometimes see on stage. Orsino is traditionally quite noble and courtly, whereas OSC favourite David Alwyn (third year in a row for him here) portrayed him as something of a hippy wanderer, his bare chest besmirched by the elements in a way not usually seen in Illyria. I know his appearance encouraged at least two female members of our party to try to read the tattoo only just concealed by his waistband. Feste can be played either jokily or sombrely and Robert Madeley went for the darker end of the spectrum. As a result you might equate him more like Lear’s wise fool that sees the truth than a traditional court jester. Mr Madeley’s voice was sometimes a little soft in comparison to the rest of the cast, and, as the lead singer whenever they did group numbers, it meant that his voice tended to become outshone by the instruments.
So it was a good production from the OSC but perhaps not one of their greatest. Nevertheless, everyone had a wonderful time and we’re always happy to keep coming back. Memories of their spooky Macbeth, petulantly mannered Earnest, and simply hilarious Merry Wives (2005 version) guarantee our annual return!