Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Joyce Branagh
Costume Designer: Sara Perks
Set Designer: Max Dorey
Composer: Eamonn O’Dwyer
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
“More matter for a May morning…” – or, better yet, for a Summer afternoon or evening! It’s difficult to imagine a more joyous three hours of Shakespeare for an open-air production in what is bound to be a glorious summer in the sun of York.
Joyce Branagh’s expertise in pantomime shows through in her handling of comic ensembles and, especially, of the cast’s relationship with the audience. All the productions in the Shakespeare’s Rose season have used the yard space
imaginatively, but none has created the degree of face-to-face interaction that Twelfth Night does.
It’s not unusual to transfer Twelfth Night to a 1920s setting, but the level of absorption into the period is impressive and delightful. Put together these elements and the production explodes with vitality from the start. The stage suggests a picture palace, with an Art Deco statue-cum-lamp in the foyer (we can imagine the uses that will be put to later – and it is!). For this production, the band has been moved down from its customary eyrie to the corner of the
stage and now accompanies Wreh-Asha Walton as she belts out a jazzy 1920s ditty. Saucy matelots jig through the audience, getting them to wave along with the fun. Then the ship they are carrying (prophetically the SS Cesario) splits in two, Viola is washed ashore – and the play begins.
And that’s the important part. Despite all the nonsense (and Twelfth Night is a sort of celebration of the Lord of Misrule, so why not?), the essence of this production is a very funny reading of the text itself, in all its knockabout humour and subtle wit.
There aren’t many boring characters in Twelfth Night and one of Branagh’s triumphs is to make the few there are constantly entertaining. Who is Fabian, except a part that cast-strapped directors like to cut? In Cassie Vallance’s spot-on performance, she becomes a gawky servant junior to Rina Mahoney’s bossy Maria, desperately trying to become a part of the whole conspiracy – and, when she finally scores over Sir Toby, all the audience shares her glee. What of Valentine and Curio, Orsino’s gentlemen? One too many and totally characterless. With the luxury of a large cast Branagh adds one more, “Dulcima” (Hannah Francis-Baker, no lines, but cropping up everywhere playing trumpet and saxophone), casts Walton (Valentine) and Richard Standing (Curio) to boost the band with singing and bass playing, and uses all three as eavesdroppers, accompanists and obstructions, moving in sync like comic policemen in a silent movie – we get comic policemen, too, but later!
Olivia Onyehara delights as Viola, assuming the role of Cesario with a knowing bashfulness and a winning resemblance to brother Sebastian (Marcello Cruz); the near-encounters of the identical duo are one of Branagh’s clever uses of the space at her disposal. Mark Holgate’s urbane Orsino resists the excesses of swooning Orsinos can be affected with and Leandra Ashton’s beautifully in-period Olivia leaves no doubt of her desperation to escape her self-enforced mourning.
Fine Time Fontayne’s bluff Sir Toby can drain a glass and time a gag with the best of them and Alex Phelps, an untypically brawny Sir Andrew, is a suitably effete and doltish companion. As Feste Clare Corbett, a bowler-hatted 1920s clown, chips and quips and goes into her tap at every opportunity and Claire Storey’s Malvolio hits his/her stride as vanity blooms and indignities strike.
A uniformly excellent cast clearly having fun, brightly imaginative designs, music and songs that strike the perfect balance between Shakespeare’s original and the 1920s – what more could you ask for? The only thing that could dampen this sunny three hours is if “the rain it raineth every day” – but it couldn’t do that, could it?
Runs until September 1, 2019 | Image: Contributed