I suppose if I wanted to be provocative I should say that I preferred some other production of this play. That comment got me into enough trouble the other week. Not for the first time, mouth shot out of theatrical blocks somewhat quicker than brain. Her indoors has changed my pills and sellotape in the vain hope of reform. Wouldn’t be fair with this one though, as my only experience of Twelfth Night is from the old box in the living room. Dazzling performances if I remember, but I was as clueless at the end as I was at the beginning. TV is a terrible medium for attention spans. And Shakespeare’s comedies rank someway below his history plays for me. Reckon I said that in the bar afterwards but no one, not even director Alan Clarke, produced any sellotape.
Not that he needed to. I had a few caveats about ACT’s latest theatrical offering but for ambition and clarity I could not fault it. This company don’t take easy options but on a simple and effective walled garden set, no cumbersome scene changes, they allowed the text to do the work. Edwardian folk set in the land of Illyria (no I’ve never heard of it either) weaved a complex comic web in a clear narrative flow. Intricate couplings were a little low key but I was firmly seduced by the outrageous secondary characters thrust centre stage by Shakespeare’s script. Dogberry is my favourite character in Much Ado About Nothing. This one has three or four, equally rich in fun. An enjoyable evening was effortlessly lifted by comic actors firing on all their inventive cylinders.
Amongst the best of them was Malcolm Farrar’s superb performance as the enigmatic Malvolio. Played here as an elderly solicitor come family retainer, Mr Farrar etched out every inch and sniff of a comic character tinged with melancholy and misunderstanding. Multi layered and beautifully precise, his interpretation of the misguided lover to Olivia was an absolute joy in lettered word and action. Mr Farrar wasn’t the only acting star on this stage. Adam Lloyd Jones was an equally superb Sir Toby Belch, rich in sonorous tones and vocal variety, and James Trapp a beautifully observed Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Mr Trapp’s puzzled facial expressions skilfully displayed a consummate silly ass foil to the bumptious and hedonistic Sir Toby and both actors combined in physical and verbal comedy of the highest order. The grossness of one and the fragility of the other teamed with dramatic finesse.
I was also strikingly taken with Miranda Larson’s excellent playing of the mischievous maid Maria. Miss Larson has eyes so expressive and sparkling I reckon she takes them out and polishes them every night. Whatever the trick, this was a playful character completely in her comfort zone. I have always admired Miss Larson, even when she slightly disappointed. Here she was on the top of her considerable form. Steven Clarke was also on top vocal and singing form as Olivia’s fool Feste. But here comes my first caveat. Strong as it was it lacked a quintessential lightness to simultaneously mask and point the intelligent devilry. Only my opinion of course, but much as I admired Mr Clarke’s singing, especially his rounding of the play at the end, he is an actor better suited to meaty dramatic roles.
I am in danger here of overlooking the central plot. Happened before. Once did a review of a Becket play and never mentioned the actor playing Godot. I blame Shakespeare. Cross dressing and mistaken twins are part of his staple comic diet and in this one he constantly upstages them. So it says a lot that Megan Clarke made her mark as the dignified and beautiful Olivia. Loved by Orsino (nice cameo from Alan Clarke) but with her passions mistakenly directed elsewhere. I didn’t totally buy into that passion. Emily French’s Viola/ Cesario was convincingly boyish and shows great promise, but lacked the maturity to totally flesh out her role. I reckon Shakespeare’s boys, they played girls playing boys in his day, might have had the same problem. But Miss Clarke rose above the mayhem with poise and dignity. And, boy, this silly play (Pepys said this on its first showing) had lots of mayhem.
And that mayhem is what I particularly liked. Some of the smaller roles lacked the finesse of the principals, a notable exception being Richard Alexander’s imposing Antonio, and overall sexual ambiguity was generally lacking. I reckon I have a dirty mind. But if the evening was slightly unbalanced it was also a jolly piece of fun. Alan Clarke’s laudable ACT Company gave us another taste of Shakespeare and, beautifully costumed and with some great comic acting, I understood it all. And that’s a first with this play. I shall say so, loudly, at my next theatrical meeting of the Shakespeare society in Ladbrokes. If they take off the sellotape. Roy Hall