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Twelfth Night – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Author: William Shakespeare

Director: Edward Hall

Reviewer: Ann Bawtree


A capacity audience filled the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre for the Propeller Company’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’. Judging from the age of ninety per cent of those present the play is one of this year’s examination texts. The whole building was alive with buzzing conversations and laughter. Discussions were held as to the significance of the setting, designed by Michael Pavelka, which at first glance resembled a collection of pieces of bedroom furniture and dusky mirrors all draped in swathes of grey cloth. One large section was thought to resemble a missile launcher until it was pointed out that a rope from above gave it the shape of a wrecked ship’s prow.

While the house lights were still up a strange little man in a raincoat and too small a hat wandered on to the stage. He, Feste the clown, was playing some kind of stringed instrument and singing a song about when he was a little boy. Played by Liam O’Brien in his natural Irish brogue, he eventually morphed into Iain Paisley in his final harangue of the unfortunate Malvolio (Chris Myles). At his appearance immediate silence fell and the young audience was captivated and remained so throughout the evening.

A group of men (Propeller is, in true Shakespearean style, an all male company) enter. They are wearing dark business suits and ties and are only remarkable for the half masks which cover the top halves of their faces. Lurking about the stage throughout, they whisked off the drapery to reveal a dishevelled figure sitting on a chair with a glass in one hand and a half empty bottle in the other. He is none other than Duke Orsino of Illyria on whose shores Viola, the heroine, has been shipwrecked. The Duke is mourning his unrequited love for Olivia. There follows a complicated story of mistaken identity, false rumours of death and practical joking of the cruellest kind, interspersed with scenes of hilarious drunken revelry.

The characters enter and leave the stage, frequently passing through the mirrored wardrobes, like assistants in a conjuror’s magical disappearing act. The strange ship-like edifice is soon hoisted high to act as a chandelier in the ducal palace. The text is often accompanied by ethereal music, either vocal or produced by the rubbing of a glass’s rim with a wet finger, and strange bowed instruments.

The play can be seen to display the deepest of meaningful relationships as explained in the programme notes of Roger Warren or simply enjoyed on a much lighter level. As the Propeller Company is, in true Shakespearean style all male, we have all the old twist of “this is a man playing the part of a girl who is impersonating a man” as in the case of Viola. All the more admirable are the performances of Ben Allen as Olivia, tall and elegant in a nineteen thirties evening gown, cropped hair and important earrings, and Gary Shelford as Olivia’s buxom “gentlewoman”, who is anything but.

The last scene, where light eventually dawns on everyone as to who’s who and explanations are revealed, is played very slowly as realisations eventually sink in. So slowly in fact at some points it almost seems that the actors are unsure of their words, which leads to a slightly downbeat ending. But surely the author would have approved this production, the translation of the “yellow stockings, cross gartered” into something equally ridiculous for the twenty first century and especially the dance routine which begins the final act. This deservedly raised rapturous applause from the audience, only to be exceeded by the cheers to which these accomplished actors took their final bows.

Runs: until the 17th November then throughout the UK, in America, France, Italy and Spain until 20 July 2013 (see www.propeller.org.uk for details)



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