Twelfth Night, Hoxton Hall, 12 January 2011
Of the various venues on offer to see this music hall themed production of Twelfth Night, only one made perfect sense: the Victorian music hall, Hoxton Hall.
Some themed productions of Shakespeare disappoint. A director decides to set a play on Mars or in the 1970s, but after half an hour the wigs and sets are forgot and the play’s references to Illyria, Bohemia, Scotland etc. purge the production of whatever radical cleverness was first conceived.
Not so in Another Way Theatre’s take on Twelfth Night. Not only did the theme suit the play perfectly, but it also meant that the bawdy humour in the comedy could be seen in a new light: as the direct ancestor of the cheeky humour of music hall, Benny Hill and beyond.
The split level stage was decked out with trellis covered in netting, which gave it a nautical look. The front seats were positioned around tables and playbills were posted up to create a music hall atmosphere. A sheet hung at the back onto which film clips appropriate to the onstage action were projected.
The performance began with Feste, played by Andrew Venning, in his music hall comedian attire leading the audience in fifteen minutes of singing. The programme helpfully contained the lyrics to three old-time classics: Golden Hair, Where Did You Get That Hat? and Waltz Me Around Again, Willie.
The segment ended with a music hall style song written especially for the performance by director Chris Chambers called Oh What You Will. With lyrics based on the alternative title of Twelfth Night, the song created an aural link between the world of the music hall and the world of the play.
Virtually everyone in the cast played an instrument and contributed to the opening music. When it subsided only three actors were left sitting on stage and the centre one announced himself to be Orsino (Steven Rostance) by kicking the play off with its famous opening line.
Music and song, usually led by Feste, punctuated the production reinforcing the theme and keeping it central to the audience’s awareness of the play.
The separation of Viola and Sebastian was dramatised with a billowing sheet representing the sea. The sheet was then wrapped around her like a warming blanket as, newly arrived in Illyria, she questioned her whereabouts.
The sheet was then raised to cover her as she changed behind it into her Cesario disguise.
Despite taking over the role of Viola at short notice to cover for illness, Alexis Jayne Defoe delivered a confident performance with excellent verse speaking. It was only towards the end that she had to resort to reading from the script. But by that stage she had built up such a reserve of goodwill that this slight flaw was barely noticeable.
I instantly liked Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. The ebullient corpulence of Andrew Goddard contrasted with the nervous leanness of Christopher Mark to create a comedy duo that was reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Taniel Yusef’s Maria was also impressive, throwing herself into the buttery bar joke with gusto.
Malvolio (Michael Good) exuded cake-and-ale-snatching self-importance, his gloves suggesting that the world around him was a series of potential contaminations to be combated.
Chief among these contaminations was Sir Toby, who made the line “There’s one at the gate” into a comment on the progress of food through and out of his digestive system.
Rebecca Tanwen’s Olivia had a chance to play comedy alongside Maria, as the pair donned veils and spoke in unison announcing themselves both to be the lady of the house when Cesario first visited.
Seeing Carl Chambers as Sebastian at the start of act two made me realise how well they had done to find a stand-in Viola who closely resembled her brother. She continued to prove her worth with a praiseworthy rendition of Viola’s “I am the man” soliloquy. This was one of those wonderful occasions in the theatre when an actor’s obvious joy in the language of the play was matched only by the audience’s joy in listening to it.
The party scene got off to a suggestive start as we saw Sir Andrew viewing images from a projector. The singing of Hold Thy Peace was interrupted by the arrival of Maria in her dressing gown with her hair down. After a second song, Malvolio appeared above in the gallery. Maria’s delight in planning her revenge on the officious killjoy was palpable.
Feste sang “Come away death” to Orsino and Cesario, whose avowal of love, describing her “sister” who pined away like Patience on a monument, was genuinely moving.
The part of Fabian was cut entirely, although he did get a mention on one of the playbills that decorated the set. This meant that during the gulling scene his lines were allocated to Feste.
With their plan laid, the conspirators hid behind a row of chairs waiting for Malvolio to find the fake letter pegged to a trellis. For additional comic effect, they later hid behind insubstantial sections of trellis which they each extended and held before them as token camouflage.
Malvolio brought out the bawdy implications of him leaving Olivia sleeping; his eyes squinted in anticipation. Talking of playing with “some rich jewel”, he instinctively closed his legs in another double entendre.
It was here that the music hall theme of the production offered an interesting insight. Amid the faded splendour of a genuine Victorian music hall, Malvolio pondered the handwriting in the letter and engaged in some basic graphology: “These be her very c’s, her u’s and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s”.
This most Shakespearean of double entendres suddenly sounded like the granddad of all subsequent bawdy jokes down the ages.
Although she began her career some time after Hoxton Hall ceased to be a working music hall, Hoxton-born Marie Lloyd made a career out of exactly this kind of humour, exemplified by the song popularly ( but possibly erroneously) attributed to her “She Sits Among The Cabbages And Peas”.
Shakespeare’s bawdy had been brought to a venue that centuries after his time had devoted itself to just this kind of comedy.
Sir Andrew made a point of drawing attention to the subtle joke by asking: “Her c’s, her u’s and her t’s. Why that?” Sir Toby whispered in his ear causing Sir Andrew to express considerable shock when he understood the answer.
David Crystal, who is always keen to point out the inaccuracy of this interpretation of the word, would have been disappointed to see that Malvolio turned round on reading “revolve” in the letter. But then again, this might have been an indication that he was not particularly bright, as he also tried to read the letters M.O.A.I as a word.
After the successful gulling of the hapless steward, the interval was preceded by yet another singsong, sending the audience off to the bar in a very jolly mood.
Oh, Oh Malvolio!
The second half of the performance began with more music hall songs, including one designed to recap the gulling scene and look forward to Malvolio’s subsequent appearance. The song “Oh, Oh Antonio!” was adapted into a version entitled “Oh, Oh Malvolio!” A puppet version of Malvolio complete with yellow cross garters was made to dance in rhythm to the song.
For the start of act three Orsino and Viola came and sat at my table in seats that had been marked as reserved. From this position, Viola joked with Feste about his tabor and its proximity to the church. This reminded me that in the last RSC production of Twelfth Night, Nancy Carroll and Miltos Yerolemou had played this scene almost like a music hall double act, zinging jokes off each other. So the static staging here was perhaps an opportunity lost to inject a music hall vibe into a comedy scene.
But any niggles about the staging were swept aside as Alexis and Rebecca performed the long exchange in which Olivia woos the disguised Viola. The sequence benefited from being staged in a relatively small space. The intimacy of the venue accentuated the beauty of the language, which was accentuated by the skill of the verse speaking.
The comic highlight of any production of Twelfth Night lived up to expectations. Malvolio made his grand entrance in his ridiculous outfit of yellow stockings with cross garters, complemented by a matching yellow neckerchief. He seized on Olivia’s innocent suggestion that Malvolio should go to bed by seizing her in an embrace.
Sir Toby, Feste and Maria reacted in an exaggerated manner to Malvolio’s behaviour, but then returned to their normal selves when congratulating each other on the success of their plan.
We also got a glimpse of Sir Toby’s unpleasant side when he read Sir Andrew’s challenge and announced that he was not going to deliver it to Cesario.
It was at around this point that Alexis began to require a script to read from. She had done exceedingly well to have performed the part with skill and professionalism at such short notice; her rendition of many of the key speeches betrayed no hint of having stepped unexpectedly into another actor’s shoes. This meant that her stock of credit with the audience was so high and the goodwill towards her so intense that her reading from the page made no difference to the enjoyment of her performance.
This was also the case where in the mock sword fight with Sir Andrew, she was obliged to hold a music hall comedian’s cane like a sword in one hand with the script in the other.
Fortunately there was no protracted fight between the two as Antonio (Trevor Murphy) entered to break it up almost immediately.
When Viola commented on Antonio’s mention of her brother Sebastian’s name, she mentioned that she wore the exact “fashion, colour, ornament, for him I imitate.” We could see that her costume was indeed the same, right down to the “ornament” or brooch that both were wearing.
Feste wore a clown’s nose at various points in the play. When talking to Sebastian in 4.1 he was able to use it to comic effect, pointing at it to say the line “nor this is not my nose neither”. This slightly undercut the intended meaning of the original phrase.
Sir Andrew struck Sebastian with his glove to issue his challenge (to the wrong sibling). Only the arrival of Olivia saved him from Sir Andrew and latterly Sir Toby’s aggression. The surprise on his face as Olivia invited Sebastian to come with her was a picture.
Malvolio’s incarceration was neatly staged by having him crouch in near darkness higher up at the back of the main stage while Feste gulled him once again in the guise of Sir Topaz. It was difficult not to feel genuinely sorry when confronted with his distraught condition.
We saw Sebastian in bed with Olivia at the start of 4.3 which showed us the aftermath of their first meeting at the end of 4.1. Sebastian rose from the bed, high up at the back of the stage, and descended to tell us what a great day he was having. In this light his words “This is the air, that is the glorious sun” seemed fully justified.
A moment of comedy ensued when Olivia arrived with the Priest in a wedding dress, putting her line “Blame not this haste of mine” into humorous context.
With Fabian having been excised and his part taken by Feste, the short dialogue between the two characters in the first six lines of 5.1 was also cut.
And so the momentous final act/scene got underway with the great mix-up that saw Olivia talking to Viola as if married to her/him. Orsino’s cry of “Husband!” in reaction to Olivia’s description of Cesario raised a big laugh, which went some way to making us forget that he had just apparently threatened to harm both Olivia and Cesario.
The staging of the sequence in which all the key characters are reunited was very satisfying. Sir Andrew and Sir Toby entered fresh from their encounter with the armed Sebastian downstage left, and Viola disguised as Cesario found herself upstage left. Sebastian then entered downstage left and went to confront Olivia, who was downstage right. In this way Sebastian ended up with his back to Viola.
Orsino spotted the similarity between the pair, triggering the reunion between the estranged brother and sister.
Feste continued to read Malvolio’s letter to the end after being castigated by Olivia for his mad rendition of it (another consequence of cutting Fabian). Once the steward had been released and the entire plot against him revealed, he took his parting shot pausing menacingly to promise “I’ll be revenged… on the whole pack of you!” This severely undercut the air of jollity at the end of the play.
A brief moment of comedy lightened the air after Malvolio’s furious exit: Orsino and Olivia inadvertently took the wrong partners, quickly correcting their mistake and pairing up with the right ones as the story came to a close.
Feste’s reflective final song was rearranged into a big production number as the entire cast re-entered playing instruments, apart from Sir Toby and Sir Andrew who twirled parasols, to generate a rousing end to what had been a very entertaining evening.
The production demonstrated that there is as much joy to be had from the raw enthusiasm of fresh, striving talent as there is to be had from big established names cruising comfortably on a cushion of fame.