Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: David Thacker
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
The Octagon’s publicity describes this production as The Bard meets Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs. This description hits the nail firmly on the head – or the coxcomb, as Sir Toby Belch might exclaim.
Separated on the waves during a fierce tempest brother and sister Viola and Sebastian are washed up in Illyria believing the other dead. Viola, entering Count Orsino’s court dressed as the boy Cesario, is sent by his master to attempt to woo the lady Olivia on his behalf. But all does not go to plan as Olivia falls in love with him/her. Meanwhile, the sycophantic steward Malvolio is gulled into believing his lady, Olivia, has fallen in love with him. Mistaken identity and confusion obviously ensue as declarations of love are unreturned and strangers become foes.
Director David Thacker has set Shakespeare’s cross-dressing tale of unrequited love and gender confusion in 1920s Lancashire. And, as much of the play is set in the in the upstairs and downstairs quarters of Lady Olivia’s abode, there is more than a feel of prime time Sunday night ITV Downton to the production. The over zealous butler Malvolio tends his lady who lies grief-stricken on her chaise longue while in the kichen below maid Marie (Jessica Baglow), Feste the fool (Maxwell Hutcheon), the drunken sot Sir Toby Belch (Ian Blower) and foolish sop Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mawgan Gile) run amok.
Set in the round there is a strong sense of ensemble within this production. Defined areas of the stage become the kitchen, Malvolio’s quarters and Olivia’s day room. While further off Count Orsino (Michale Shelford) forlornly plays his piano in his ‘batchelor pad’, underscoring much of the play. What results is a overwhelming feel of isolation and loneliness. Thacker leaves his characters onstage throughout the play, resigned to their quarters to while away the time and dreaming of what may be or what once was. And the large, empty picture frames that hang above their heads create an intense and melancholic atmosphere that feels more Chekovian than Shakespearean.
It is this sense of melancholy that this production struggles to shake off – an unnecessary weight that doesn’t allow it up for air. There seems to be a lack of fun and delight that this play can relish in. Christopher Villers is wonderful as Malvolio and especially good in the gulling scene was not matched by the merriment of his onlookers as their plan is coming to fruition. The stupidity of the duelling scene between Cesario and Aguecheek and the immediately lovestruck Olivia are both underplayed. And the awkward relationship between Orsino and his ‘manservant’ is non-existent resulting in a state of incredulity when Cesario’s real gender is revealed at the end of the play and Orsino declares that he will have her!
Thacker has really played with the darker elements in the play. It can be treated like a farce but questions of motivation and revenge are interesting undercurrents that are explored in this production. Aguecheek’s comment that he was once adored and Malvolio’s proclamation “by my stars I am happy”, when duped into thinking Olivia loves him, become all the more poignant when set against a backdrop of a world that seems to be addicted to melancholy. And his final lines, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, becomes a menacing promise and not an idol threat.
Photo: Ian Tilton | Runs until 22 March 2014