Twelfth Night – Rose Playhouse, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Adam Nichols

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Though it touches on some very nice ideas, and finishes with an extremely strong idea executed well, the production as a whole feels scrappy, rushed and unbalanced. Wrapping in contemporary music throughout, with some strong vocal performances, gives it a freshness and some life but isn’t enough to revive it completely.

The idea to set the show on a cruise ship, the SS Illyria, in the roaring 20’s held a lot of potential. There’s the musical styles of the jazz age, the dress, the sexual liberation. It also gives us a cunning take on the regular island setting of Illyria. The captain of the ship (Duke Orsino) rescues some crew and passengers of the stricken SS Elysium, where cabaret singer Viola puts on a man’s clothes and becomes Cesario, his servant. Cesario is set to woo a famous actress on board, Olivia, where complications arise.

Some flat performances mean that professed love is not convincing, denials are unbelievable and even great revenge plots feel half-hearted. Overdone caricatures of these characters mean they’re just capering on stage at times rather than communicating with the audience. Indeed, the main part of the play where a little capering is called for, as Malvolia reads the fake letter professing love for her from her employer Olivia, drags a bit and feels indulgent in the middle of a production cut down to 90 or so minutes. The music is generally good, with playing responsibilities shared among the cast – but in a small performance space like this with a full band some of the great voices on offer and nuance is lost.

The production shows real intelligence, however, and generates some true drama in its treatment of Malvolia. Beginning as the others in this production, over-exaggerated and a little grating, she evolves during her disastrous courting of Olivia and by the end is a sad, forlorn figure. The play highlights what other Twelfth Night productions miss easily – the group of revellers are just nasty, vindictive bullies (to Sir Andrew Aguecheek too). There’s a lot contained in this idea, and it’s a shame it only really is capitalised on at the end, despite signs emerging much earlier.

Adam Nichol’s setting and ideas are great – the boat, the music and the time. The execution makes it fall apart somewhat, though not completely. There’s enough here, especially with the Malvolia line, to entertain but it’s tough at times to dig out.

Runs until 5 May | Image: Lou Morris

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