It has a reputation as one of the most robust comedies in the Shakespearean canon for good reason and, as any of the heaps of academic material covering the play will prove, rich in theme for those wanting to delve into it.
Watermill Theatre’s rendition of Twelfth Night is steeped in a jazz era aesthetic. It’s a very canny way of treating the play, where Malvolio’s puritanism is channelled through Prohibition-era context, Sir Toby is a veteran of the speak-easy, and Duke Orsino’s court is a lavish jazz club. This does not compromise Watermill’s tradition of pitching a very modern take on the play. As with their other shows, the play is accompanied by live music and a casually progressive attitude to changing the sex of characters, even in a play about fluid gender roles: Sir Toby as explicitly female works all the better for inflaming Malvolio’s disapproval at her behaviour. Much of the company’s music here are so stylish 20s-esque covers of modern songs which encapsulate the crashing together of old and new that the production is trying to achieve.
I’m always surprised at how well drag and cross-dressing still work at eliciting laughter. It’s as much to do with execution as it is taboo thankfully, or Twelfth Night would be at severe risk of dating far worse than the other comedies. In this case, the troupe of actors know not to simply rely on the novelty of cross-dressing but bring all their talents for timing, suggestion, bawdiness, and – come Malvolio’s big reveal – spectacle to bear to provoke laughter.
Malvolio is of course one of those parts that can see big returns from an audience and Peter Dukes proves ample to the task of inhabiting the by turns stuffy and licentious steward. He’s the anvil upon which the success of the play is either forged or broken. It is decidedly the former. Not to say this talented group of actors don’t all pull their weight around Dukes. Solid across the board, I must once again laud Lauryn Redding in particular who rings every last laugh out of Sir Toby. A very assured and entertaining performance of a classic. ★★★★☆ Fenton Coulthurst (at the Everyman in Cheltenham) 7th July 2017