True to its nature as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, the best of Twelfth Night comes in its humour. The story, for the uninitiated, follows two twins, Viola and Sebastian, who both wash ashore in Illyria thinking the other has drowned. Viola takes the guise of Cesario, and falls into a love triangle. She desires her master, Duke Orsino, who himself loves Lady Olivia, who then falls for ‘Cesario’. The reappearance of Sebastian, indistinguishable from his twin’s male disguise, makes for much hilarity late on. Meanwhile, members of Olivia’s household scheme mischievously.
The production makes use of its source material wonderfully – each monologue enunciated to full effect, each comedic moment played to the audience’s delight. In this age of Shakespeare being juxtaposed to a whole manner of settings – from the much-acclaimed women’s-prison Julius Caesar, to Ralph Fiennes’ guerrilla-war Coriolanus, no such update takes place here.
Bar the odd touch, such as the gramophone in the corner, this is a pure rendition of the play as it was written, and this adds to the effect. Certainly, the role of Feste, the resident jester and musician – played here by Brian Protheroe of one-hit wonder Pinball fame – feels like a classic crowd pleaser, always there with a quip or a play on words.
Protheroe, however, is but one of a cast of stellar performers. Rose Reynolds as Viola handles her character’s disguise very well, managing to effectively convey the ‘performance within a performance’ taking place. Meanwhile, much of the comedy comes from David Fielder and Milo Twomney as two hapless knights of the realm, Olivia’s cousin Sir Toby Belch, and his compatriot Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
While this production of Twelfth Night is somewhat by the books, the most interesting element is that a more sombre tone is adopted for much of the production, creating an odd but intriguing contrast. One such example comes with the production’s rendition of the famous ‘The Wind and the Rain” as sung by Feste. While adaptations such as the 1996 film had the song keep its playful, almost amused stylings, here it is a much more soulful affair; the spotlight rested solely on Protheroe and his guitar, with no percussion or plucky backing to raise the mood. This toned-down angle takes nothing away from the humour, but rather enriches the overall production.
Adding to this tonal diversity is the brilliant composition by Grant Olding, who draws on his training as an actor to truly make the music part of the play; from the joyful motif that accompanies many a scene, to the brooding ambience that serves as an undertone at the more wistful or solemn moments.
Jonathan Munby’s production of Twelfth Night is certainly a must-see for those who enjoy a good comedy, but don’t be alarmed if you come away with a more rounded experience than you might expect.
Twelfth Night is presented by the English Touring Theatre and can be seen at the Theatre Royal, Brighton until Sat 29 November.