Review – Twelfth Night, Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 1st August 2015

Twelfth NightWhat 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?

Gypsy CaravanI’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.

David AlwynFor 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.

Alice ColesWe 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.

William FindleyThere 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.

Marie FortuneIt 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, Robert Madeleybut 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.

George HaynesI 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.

James LavenderSome 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.

Molly RobertsSo 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!

Review – Comedy of Errors, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 13th August 2011

Comedy of ErrorsThere are few greater privileges in life than to be able to relax in the beautiful gardens of Wadham College Oxford, take in a picnic, enjoy a bottle of something velvety, and watch a performance by the Oxford Shakespeare Company. We’ve been coming here for many years now, and it’s always a joy. Some years are more joyous than others, depending on the plays. This summer they are bringing back two of their greatest hits. One is The Importance of Being Earnest, which we saw first time around, and is a super show. We may, if we get time and the weather is kind, try and see it again. The other is The Comedy of Errors, first performed by the OSC in 2004, one year before we discovered them. So it was with relish that we bagged our front row seats for last Saturday’s matinee.

Even if you’re a Shakespeare purist, “Comedy of Errors” is one of those plays that really lends itself to modernising and being messed around. On paper, the opening scene is exceptionally wordy and really rather tedious; but there’s no escaping it, otherwise the rest of the play doesn’t make sense. Chris Pickles’ delightful production does a huge amount of messing around with the play, re-inventing that opening scene in Ephesus TV’s studio as a game show, with host and hostess in sparkly garments, challenging Egeon to raise the money for his liberty else he dies, and all just for a bit of fun.

Another piece of inventiveness in this production is the use of Hollywood style songs, which certainly raise a smile and have been chosen cleverly to reflect the story. Some of the cast prove themselves to be very good at the song-and-dance routines! As a device, this didn’t quite work for me, but mainly because of the way I first encountered this play. When I was 17 I was lucky enough to be in the front row at the Aldwych for the RSC’s production by Trevor Nunn, with songs by Guy Woolfenden and starring Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Roger Rees, Francesca Annis, Mike Gwilym and many other brilliant performers. Guy Woolfenden took Shakespeare’s lines and wove them into brilliant, story-progressing songs. The Hollywood songs in this production are apt, but they don’t move the story forward – my bugbear in musical theatre.

Another joke that wore thin for me was the use of sound effects. Maybe I’m still suffering from Government Inspector overkill. Part of the circus/madcap/Keystone Kops element in this production includes cheeky sound effects to accompany many of the bits of comedy business. A horn honk for a slap on the tummy, a kazoo rasp for a kick up the bum, a fart sound for… well a fart actually; you get the picture. Funny and clever – at first… but then I have to confess it did slightly get on my nerves by the time we approached the interval. There was one extremely good sound effect – the sassy symbols that heralded each arrival of the Courtesan, more of whom later.

Howard GossingtonNow those topics are out of the way, I can tell you about the wonderful cast. One actor plays both Antipholuses and one both Dromios. That calls for a lot of hard work! Stand out brilliant was Howard Gossington as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus. I had wondered how they would differentiate between the two characters – costume changes I supposed. And yes they do – Antipholus of Ephesus wears a gracious tie and sports a well to do hat, whilst his Syracusian brother has a tie-dye type thing and a fedora. But it’s almost unnecessary, as Mr Gossington invests both brothers with completely different vocal patterns and mannerisms; Ephesus is a rather posh travelling type who obviously went to a good school, and Syracuse is a bit of a Millwall supporting troublemaker. Both characterisations really worked well and it’s a great performance.

Nick ChambersNick Chambers as the two Dromios also puts in a good comic performance but the differences between the two servants are not so easy to define and so we rely a little more on his changing hat – white for Ephesus, black for Syracuse. I particularly enjoyed the relish with which he described the ghastly Nell, who had fallen for him.

Alicia Davies For the Antipholine love interest, Alicia Davies is a stunning Adriana, in a sexy red dress and with cleavage bursting for freedom. She captures all the comedy of Adriana’s shrewish tendencies superbly, although she may slightly underdo her tenderer moments. Alyssa Noble Alyssa Noble makes an excellently bookish Luciana, and preens with hilarious pleasure when Antipholus makes amorous advances towards her.

Benjamin WellsThe other members of the cast all bring great verve and vivacity to their characters; amongst the many parts they play, Benjamin Wells’ Angelo is Alan Sugar with added elegance; Kai SimmonsKai Simmons is a superb Marlon Brando Godfather Balthazar, with a brilliant Mafia voice and mannerisms; Andrew Piper’s Officer is a hilarious sixth member of the Village People; and stealing every scene,Andrew Piper James Lavender, appearing as every other female character, creates a Germanic Jessica Rabbit Courtesan with a high level of naughtiness about her – which included in the show we saw, her singling me out for some amorous attention and the promise of free Bratwurst after the performance. That was just one of many really funny interactions between cast and audience throughout the whole show that were carried off with great aplomb.

James LavenderThere’s a marvellously surreal sequence where Dromio appears to apologise for a bad bit of acting because he can’t quite understand Shakespeare’s drift, whereupon the whole cast turn into a bunch of text-dissecting pretentious luvvies trying to get to the heart of the meaning. I was completely fooled by the scene and genuinely thought Dromio was annoyed with his performance, until the rest chipped in. It’s a magnificent piece of invention. There’s also a bang up-to-date scene with Antipholus’ shopping bags with light references to looting and cross-dressing. Extremely funny stuff.

I’d highly recommend it. Even the aspects I didn’t really care for didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of this gusto-filled performance by a captivating cast in fabulous surroundings.