The Attic, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th September 2014
Shakespeare’s bittersweet rom-com is given a fresh injection of darkness in this touring production by PurpleCoat. The setting is present day – judging by the pulsating dance music and the designs of the beach towels that form the backdrop. Illyria is party central but there are two flies in the ointment. The first is lovelorn Duke Orsino: self-indulgent and selfish, he is a man in love who considers no one else’s passions but his own. The second is the Lady Olivia whose prolonged mourning for her dead father and brother keeps her from the world. These two speak with Liverpool accents, in an interesting reversal of class (their servants are much posher!). In some cases, the accent brings out the naturalism of the script but in others it jars a little. There are moments when the accent brings a note of bathos. There is much to laugh at with this pair. I warmed to Daniel Carmichael’s Duke and Rhea Little’s Olivia, like a WAG, has some deliciously funny moments.
Caitlin Clough is a strong Viola, clever and sometimes vulnerable. Stewart McDonald’s masterly Malvolio is funny and oddly sympathetic; he suffers distress at the hands of practical jokers – it is during the Sir Topaz scene that the play turns dark: the practical joke has gone sour. Even instigator Toby Belch cannot stomach it. Sir Toby is played by director Karl Falconer; by the end he is a broken man. His excesses have got the better of him and he totters around with an Ozzy Osborne frailness. Lee Burnitt’s Feste is rather intense for a jester but his music brings out the melancholy aspects of the play. The main players are strongly supported by Thomas Whittaker (Fabian and Valentine) and Jack Spencer makes an impression as Curio and Viola’s misplaced brother Sebastian.
Strongest of this young cast are Sam Liu’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is part Kenneth Williams, part Charles Hawtrey and part Bertie Wooster, and Natasha Ryan as the scheming Maria. Between them, these two could perform a Carry On film.
There are dips in the energy and while most of the comic business works a treat, there is the odd moment of over-egging the pudding. In this small venue, the broader playing shows up weaknesses in the more naturalistic moments. Problems with the lighting mean often characters are standing in shadow – If they were in for a longer run than just this one performance, I would call these teething problems. I question the interpolation of a “Fuck this!” and Olivia telling Sir Andrew to piss off; they seem too out-of-keeping with the rest of the tone to be funny.
On the whole though, this is an invigorating romp with a touching denouement and a nasty aftertaste, and reminds me why I love the play so much.