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Twelfth Night at Southwark Playhouse | Review

Twelfth Night at Southwark Playhouse
Twelfth Night at Southwark Playhouse

This is one of those productions where it helps to have some knowledge of Twelfth Night beforehand to fully appreciate the comedy in it. Members of the audience are supplied with wristbands before going into the auditorium, where the set quite convincingly provides a party environment at one of those summer outdoor music festivals. The play is still set in Illyria in this radically different version. Orsino is now Orsinia (Sapphire Joy), Antonio is now Antonia (Caroline Parker), and Valentine is now Valentina (Liv Spencer). And yes – let’s deal with the elephant in the room straight away – Malvolio’s (Luke Wilson) yellow stockings are retained, and they are, as ever, ‘cross-gartered’.

A show like this, on paper at least, comes across as something that isn’t going to work as well as a more ‘traditional’ production would. Consider, for instance, the 14-strong cast that formed the 2013 Globe Theatre production: here, there are six actors. The costumes are contemporary, though much of Shakespeare’s early seventeenth-century text has been retained, more than I had expected for a ninety-minute version of the play. (The 2017 National Theatre production, by comparison, ran just shy of three hours including interval.) But I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable this was.

If it becomes a little confusing as to who is actually whom at any given moment (everyone has more than one role to play, and costume changes can be as quick and subtle as the mere removal of a hat), this only adds to the entertainment. It’s not as if the audience isn’t supplied with any background details – actors introduce themselves and the characters they are playing, albeit briskly, at the start of the show. In Shakespeare’s day, female characters would have been played by boys or young men. I couldn’t quite place precisely when this production was set, particularly given the (arguably very welcome) absence of mobile telephones on stage, but here, women actors are very much in the majority, between them playing male and female roles.

Rather like being at a stand-up gig, those who sit in the front row do so at their own risk (though with unreserved seating, I would have thought the more introverted theatregoers would naturally gravitate to the seats further back in any event). Some excellent actor-musicianship provides an extra layer to the play, as do the songs themselves. ‘Eye of the Tiger’ was used repeatedly, I think for dual purposes – to ratchet up both dramatic tension and create a comedy effect. Some sort of purple inflatable couch malfunctioned on press night. Or does it – pardon my cynicism – just happen to ‘fail’ every night? The on-stage response, whether scripted or not, seemed convincingly genuine, a contrast to the (deliberately) contrived nature of some of the other proceedings.

While some of the characters may have been hammed up, somewhat playing to the gallery, this did not matter in a comedy play. Some driving beats permeate dialogue, as would be reasonably expected in scenes set around an area with a strong nightlife, though thankfully not too loud. This would appear to be as much a consideration of the sensitivities of theatre audiences who appreciate subtlety as making provision for the actors’ lines to be heard.

As if this production wasn’t accessible enough, the inclusion of British Sign Language is indicative of an ever-increasing awareness of BSL and BSL users in theatre today. In the almost relentless happiness and joy of this version, the weeping mask of theatre is rarely worn. Fresh, modern and a tad barmy, the charm and wit of this lively production is to be enjoyed with the spirit that goes with a celebratory atmosphere.

4 stars

Reviea by Chris Omaweng

Love sought is good, but giv’n unsought is better.
Whilst searching for her lost twin brother in Illyria, Viola stumbles upon something entirely unexpected – love. But in Illyria, love’s true course is never going to run smoothly.

No one is quite what they claim to be in this strange place – male/female, lover/fighter, happy/sad, fool/priest – which leads to all sorts of complications.

Shakespeare’s classic comedy of love and identity is given a rollicking makeover with a festival vibe and live music on stage. Grab your wristbands now before they all get snapped up!

Directed by RSC Creative Fellow Anna Girvan (Associate Director, People Places and Things) and designed by Anna Reid (The Cardinal, Dear Brutus) this production will be suitable for everyone aged 10 and above.

Creative Team
Director – Anna Girvan
Designer – Anna Reid
Lighting Designer – Sarah Readman
Composer and Musical Director – Anna Clock
Sound Designer – Francis Botu
Movement Director – Louise Kempton

Becky Barry, Aruhan Galieva, Sapphire Joy, Caroline Parker, Liv Spencer & Luke Wilson.

Southwark Playhouse presents
Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare
17 JAN – 9 FEB 2019


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