“the huge amount of thought, work, imagination and versatility makes this Twelfth Night an enjoyable evening of love, laughter and, of course, cross-dressing”
Joining recent updated versions of Shakespearean favourites, Bridge House Productions presents a bright and spirited Twelfth Night with a colourful crowd of characters, plenty of music and lashings of vitality. Without any specific resetting, director, Guy Retallack, designs each role to become a modern and, in some cases, unusual conception of the original, bringing a refreshing take on the familiar script. As the audience sits around the shore of Illyria – a discreetly tasteful set by Natalie Johnson – five talented actors multitask, changing accents and costumes to create an array of distinctive personalities to tell this tale of love with energy, commitment and skill.
The lighting (Richard Williamson) and sound (Phil Lee) both fill the small theatre space with atmosphere but unlike other recent productions – Othello in the British Raj, the digital Facebook world of Much Ado, pre-war 1920s Midsummer Night’s Dream – Guy Retallack’s adaptation lacks a focal point in time or place for the cast to work around and identify with; without it, the performance doesn’t quite gel. The direction concentrates on a group of interesting and innovative individuals with a bond in certain relationships such as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, but missing in others, importantly between Orsino and Viola. There are moments, for example Malvolio’s letter-reading, where a feeling of ensemble comes from some superb choreography by Paul Harris, but the denouement in the second half slackens without the natural integration of the characters to spark each other off.
Already a complexity of hidden identities, the doubling up by the company adds another layer to the melange. We discover their various qualities and facets, stretched to envelop the many contrasting portrayals. Eve Niker slips deftly into Viola’s disguise as Cesario and then switches to a wonderful, twinklingly Irish Maria. As Orsino and Malvolio, George Maguire steps from sleek American to pinched English, perhaps blending slightly towards the end, while, as well as enhancing the show with his live music, Ben Woods plays a diverse selection of parts, notably a hippie Feste and nit-witted Sir Andrew. Fayez Bakhsh (Sir Toby) and Miriam Grace Edwards (Olivia) both find an approach which sheds new light on clichéd interpretations and we hear Shakespeare’s lines with fresh voices
At almost three hours, it is a substantial rendering of this comedy. Nonetheless, the huge amount of thought, work, imagination and versatility makes this Twelfth Night an enjoyable evening of love, laughter and, of course, cross-dressing.
“Julie Drake’s direction establishes the mastery of Ionesco’s script while risking a contemporary slant”
It wasn’t until he decided to teach himself English in his late thirties that Eugene Ionesco was inspired to write his first play, ‘The Bald Prima Donna’, which premiered in 1950. Diligently copying the simple, conversational phrases of his Assimil course, these sentences began to lose their educational purpose and take on a life of their own, expanding and distorting to give an underlying surrealism to an outwardly controlled and orderly way of life. Considered as one of the core representatives of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, his linguistic fascination leads to an observation of everyday situations and behaviour with innocence and often, puzzlement. The directness of his fast-moving, humorous dialogues appeals to audiences because of their familiarity as he moves them out of context, creating nonsensical mirror-worlds.
‘The Bald Prima Donna’ is cleverly structured as a gradual awareness of our use of words, clichés and maxims, the action accelerating from tranquil niceties to raging gobbledegook. In 5Go Theatre Company’s revival of this ‘anti-play’, Julie Drake’s direction establishes the mastery of Ionesco’s script while risking a contemporary slant and original artistic touches. The multi-racial casting and passages in Spanish and Polish are a thoughtful update on today’s stereotypical society but the initial narrated stage directions, however amusing, perhaps undermine the ability to put across the ‘Englishness’ through the acting.
A typical, middle-class scene is set in Mr and Mrs Smith’s living room – he is fixedly reading the newspaper and she is quietly darning socks. The peace is broken and the tone of the unexpected is set when the clock strikes seventeen and Mrs Smith comments “Goodness! It’s nine o’clock!”. They discuss domestic banalities; they are visited by their friends, the Martins, who discover, after a while, that they themselves just married; the Smith’s maid, Mary, appears to confuse things; finally, the Fire Chief arrives to put out a non-existent fire. On the whole, the actors create well-defined characters, though the opening scene lacks a quirkiness.
Sunil Patel portrays an unflinching Mr Smith, with a worrying glint in his eye but Kate Ruscombe-King, as his wife, sometimes rushes through her lines, leaving Mrs Smith as a less rounded role and not giving the audience time to absorb Ionesco’s writing. There is a change of gear as Mr and Mrs Martin enter in full eccentricity. Hugo Linton does well, clinging on to his sanity while Penelope Bosworth gives a wonderful interpretation as her immaculate self-control eventually gives way. Leena Makoff (Mary) balances the clever yet peculiar maid beautifully and Fabio Torrico conjures up a particularly vibrant Fire Chief.
Although the pacing and colour of the performances take time to get under the skin of Ionesco’s work, it is nice to see an interesting, committed and entertaining production of this ambitious ‘tragedy of language’ and reflect on the idiosyncrasy of Englishness at a time when its identity is being put to the test.