“It’s middle-of-the-road Shakespeare on display here though, with jokes found in physicality more than the text”
Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect home for this fun and frivolous production of Twelfth Night, transferring after a popular run at the Watermill Theatre. The production oozes old-fashioned charm, and, with its talented troupe of actor-musicians performing a play so preoccupied with the power of music, is an energetic joy to behold.
Sir Toby Belch is our MC in ‘The Elephant Jazz Club’, and wittily guides us through some lovely swing numbers to kick off the show. Each cast member gets to show off some of their musical and dancing talents early on, and the range of instruments on show, and the number of instruments played by each member of the ensemble is incredible. For fans of swing covers of recent hits, this is the show for you. Orsino (Jamie Satterthwaite) charges recently shipwrecked twin-in-disguise Viola (Rebecca Lee) to woo the mourning Olivia on his behalf, little knowing that Viola actually loves him, and, as the show goes on, that Olivia is more interested in the servant than the master. This comedy is less about plot and more about antics, with Belch, Aguecheek and Feste providing enough mischief conning Malvolio (played with relish by Peter Dukes) to keep this audience roaring with laughter.
The songs, interwoven throughout, are gorgeous. Suits, hats and cigarettes are on full display to build the image of a twenties jazz club, and, though not providing a clear context for the story, nor adding anything other than a pretty aesthetic, the era seems to invite audiences to kick off their shoes and have some fun.
On the whole, the ensemble work hard and give energetic and exaggerated performances. Mike Slader makes for a comically over-the-top Aguecheek, reminiscent of a greasy Crispin Glover, and Dukes’ Malvolio is stoic and uptight, making his downfall (in all its drag glory) even greater to see. It’s middle-of-the-road Shakespeare on display here though, with jokes found in physicality more than the text, and most players’ delivery feels a little too theatrical and forced at times. A touch more variety in delivery, or belief in what is being said, may help the meaning to shine through clearer.
Lusciously lit in this beautiful space makes this production a hit though, and the audience were whooping and cheering raucously as the ensemble took their bows. Cracking comedy and tunes you can’t help tap your feet to are the order of the day, and this production delivers on all fronts.
“The air is also blue with some magnificently filthy language, imbuing the evening with an irresistibly sinuous rawness”
Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ is a great swaggering blast of a play, set in the fictional Wiltshire village of Flintock on St George’s Day. Taking its title as much from William Blake’s ironic poem (‘was Jerusalem builded here among those dark, Satanic mills?’) as from its use by Parry as a patriotic hymn, Butterworth tackles head-on the idea of Englishness. He comes up with some answers that may surprise more than one regular theatregoer at Newbury’s dreamy Watermill theatre, which is nestled in bucolic woods and fields not far from those the play depicts.
At the heart of the play is the larger than life character of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, (Jasper Britton, ex-RSC) an exuberantly crowing cock-of-the-walk who has lived for decades in a semi-derelict caravan deep in the woods. He’s a spinner of the most fantastic yarns. Born by immaculate conception with a full set of teeth, a daredevil with magic blood in his veins, he’s a man made of rock who has heard the trees sing.
But this is no enchanted forest from a Midsummer Night. Byron is also a drug pusher and a drunk who has been banned from every pub for his brawling. His life is a ‘Bucolic, Alcoholic Frolic.’ Around him cluster half a dozen or so wasted, washed-up kids, half-believing his wild stories, but quick to turn on him when he’s down. A kind of mythic haze hangs over the grimy clearing where Byron’s caravan is slowly mouldering into the ground in Frankie Bradshaw’s compelling set. The air is also blue with some magnificently filthy language, imbuing the evening with an irresistibly sinuous rawness. This is an inspired production that thanks to Lisa Blair’s excellent direction seems to grow out of the very earth the Watermill theatre stands on.
As Byron, Britton has made the part his own in a way that stands apart from Mark Rylance’s much-praised interpretation at the play’s Royal Court premiere. Britton is a colossal figure, bursting with fierce energy, mired in filth but brilliant with quick wit that lights up the theatre. The same quick-fire vitality marks the performances of several of Rooster Byron’s acolytes. Peter Caulfield as Ginger is one of the ‘Lost Boys’ – gawky and wasted, never growing up, always hoping for a break that he knows in his heart will never come. As Lee, Sam Swann has a touching innocence that’s just right for the part of the kid who thinks he’s heading to a better life tomorrow. Santino Smith is funny and compelling as Davey who has never seen the point of other counties. ‘I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop.’ Richard Evans makes the professor ethereal and vulnerable, making a vivid connection with the language of enchantment in the literature and lyrics he quotes. Robert Fitch gives a raw and edgy performance as Wesley, the hopeless morris-dancing publican who’ll take a line from Rooster and then ban him from his pub. Adam Burton, Rebecca Lee, Natalie Walter and an alternating trio of child actors as Marky all make excellent contributions to this brilliant show. Dialect coach Elspeth Morrison deserves a special mention for keeping the cast (mostly) on track in a broad Wiltshire accent.
This wonderfully involving three-act play opens with Nenda Neurer as Phaedra singing ‘Jerusalem’ with a kind of sweetly knowing innocence. What follows is both a compelling story but also a brilliantly crafted meditation on what it is to be of an ancient land where continuity and chaos, truth and fiction, hope and despair are all wrapped up into an enthralling mixture.
The Watermill Theatre’s ‘Jerusalem’ continues to Saturday 21 July. Lighting by Christopher Nairne, Sound and music, Tom Attwood, Paul Benzing, fight director.