Ah Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon. Every day somewhere in the world at least one of his 38 plays is being performed by amateur and professional thespians alike. His plays have been adapted to reflect political thinking, into musicals and, as regular readers will know, into one of London’s best immersive shows. Aside from the writing itself, I think one of the other attractions to Shakespeare is that his plays normally have a pretty large cast in them, thus ensuring work for a large number of actors. Take Twelfth Night for example. This play has 14 named characters and, even with some sharing of roles probably needs at least at least nine to be performed properly doesn’t it? Well get yourself along to Islington’s Hope Theatre and you will be able to see the impossible made possible as Thick as Thieves produce their version of Twelfth Night with a cast of only 4.
The story of Twelfth Night is pretty well known. Viola is washed up on the shores of Illyria believing she is the only survivor from a storm which wrecked her ship and also took away her twin brother Sebastian. Disguising herself,as boy by the name of Cesario, she enters the service of Orsino, Duke of Illyria. The Duke takes to the ‘lad’ and uses him to take messages of love to the Countess Olivia who the Duke desires to marry. Unfortunately, not only is the Countess not interested in the Duke, she then falls in love with Cesario. As well as the Duke Olivia is being wooed by a friend of her Uncle, Sir Toby Belch, the rather foppish knight, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Hope you are all keeping up as, in a secondary bit of plot action, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew conspire with Olivia’s maid, Maria, to have some fun at the expense of the rather pompous Steward of the Household, Malvolio. This ‘fun’ involves letters, yellow stockings and a fake priest. Just to add some fire to the mix, Cesario – who you will remember is really Viola – has fallen for the Duke who seems to have some attraction to him/her. Oh yes, remember Sebastian? Well he mustn’t be left out of the mix either in this tale of cross-dressing, unrequited love and general confusion.
I have to hand it to the team at Thick as Thieves – Nicky Diss, Thomas Judd, Oliver Lavery and Madeleine MacMahon – who I saw last year doing The Tempest, they really know how to put on an excellent show. From the moment we arrived, being greeted and shown to our seats by the cast, there was a real buzz in the atmosphere. The audience were sat on three sides of the performing area – and those of us on the front row got the additional comfort of a cushion on our seat – which was not massive but worked perfectly as the various locations in the play with the cast visible throughout. The play started with a song, then a trick with water bottles which had the audience roaring with laughter, followed by awe at the superb way the water was integrated seamlessly into the next scene.
Character changes were fast and were physically accomplished merely by the addition or subtraction of a piece of costume. However, this was where the skill of the actors really shone through as each character not only had a different style of voice but also a different bearing and mannerisms. For example, Nicky Diss (who also directed the play) moved effortlessly between the young, beautiful/handsome cross-dressing Viola/Cesario into the loud, bluff middle aged Sir Toby Belch giving each character their own distinct personality. This was true of all four cast members and despite all the rapid shifting I was never confused as to who was on stage at any one time.
A performance like this relies not only on the cast really knowing each other and being able to rely on everyone being in the right place at the right time but also, someone needs to ensure that every prop and piece of costume is in its allocated place ready to be grabbed, put on and made to bring a character to life, so hats off to Stage Manager Ariel Harrison for all her work behind the scenes supporting the team out front.
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To sum up then, on paper this production of Twelfth Night should not work. A dark room above a pub with the sounds of Islington life going on outside, a cast of four using minimal props and costumes should not be able to put on a good performance of England’s greatest playwright’s works. But this team did and did it with a style and grace that both surprised and astounded me. At the end, which didn’t feel like two hours, I left thinking what a fantastic show I had just seen, that this company really understood Shakespeare and knew the perfect way to make his work fully accessible for everyone without dumbing down but simply by putting on a truly marvelous performance.
Review by Terry Eastham
by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
12 – 30 April 2016 – 7.45pm
Tuesday to Saturday. No shows Sun & Mon
Fearing her beloved twin brother drowned, Viola washes up on the shores of Illyria. Nearby, Countess Olivia also mourns a brother and is juggling a perpetually drunk uncle, two unwanted suitors and a pompous butler. When their worlds collide, Viola finds herself tangled in an uproarious knot of love, deception and mistaken identity. Will she be able to unravel it all and get the happy ending she desires?
Following last year’s critically acclaimed and award-nominated The Tempest, Thick as Thieves return to The Hope Theatre with one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies. Expect high energy, breakneck costume changes and sparkling wit as our company of four actors takes on all thirteen roles.