Beth Kelly

Clare Fellows Garden is a stunning setting for a May Week Shakespeare, and particularly for a comedy like Twelfth Night. The sunken lawn and pond makes for a perfect focal point, decked around with flowers, bunting and half-drunk bottles of liquor – the latter was for the purposes of this play, but in May Week you might not have batted an eye anyway. Of course, the alcohol strewn around the garden provided a visual parallel to the disarray and drunken antics of Sir Toby, played with appropriate aplomb by Rory Russell. He is brash, and borderline barmy – all of which Russell nails, inflecting his performance with guffaws and slurs aplenty.

In the main plot, stand out performances from Emily Beck and Alice Murray made the scenes between Olivia (Murray) and Viola (Beck) a delight, with both actors playing their characters’ contradictory convictions with polite determination. Olivia’s opinions of the new arrival in her court are clearly written on Murray’s face, and her subsequent flirtations are amusingly overthought. In these scenes sincerity and humour are wonderfully balanced, as comedy arises from cross-purposes and dramatic irony. Viola is disguised as a man, called Cesario, in service to the Duke Orsino, and is courting Olivia on behalf of her master. The problem, of course, is that Olivia falls for ‘Cesario’. Beck’s control and calm assertion in avoiding these advances lends ‘Cesario’ a guarded civility, which is occasionally broken by excitement or exasperation as Viola lets her own feelings slip through.

"There was a nervous atmosphere that somehow unsettled the performance"

The subplot offers more overt comedy, with Sir Toby and company being the raucous foil to the courtly love triangle. When he is not insisting on merriment, Sir Toby is encouraging or consoling the hapless Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Adam Hardy. Russell and Hardy interact well, committing to the physical comedy and bouncing off each other’s laughs, but strangely they lose some of their hilarity in group scenes. The scenes in which they fool Malvolio, for example, were not as successful as they perhaps should have been. This is no reflection on Meg Coslett’s performance as Malvolio – the excited reading of the letter and later swallowed pride was great, and the bold take on the yellow stockings was inspired. For me, though, the disguises of the gulling scene were so blatantly ineffective and the taunting in the dark was so chaotically physical that suspension of disbelief was hard to maintain, even if both scenes were otherwise funny.

In the latter scene, and in the play in general, the fool is supposed to be the source of humour, but often she felt more like a spare part than a driving force. Of course, Shakespearean fools are very difficult to get right for a modern audience, and while Katie Clare did give plenty of energy to the role of Feste, some of the jokes unfortunately didn’t land. Clare’s singing, however, was lovely; the whole cast came on stage to join in the final song, and it was a shame that they did so too tentatively and self-consciously, because when they relaxed into it this was a lovely end-piece. I think this is true of the play as a whole; there was a nervous atmosphere that somehow unsettled the performance – I assume this was because it was the first show, and that later performances will have settled.


Mountain View

Staging a protest

Moreover, outdoor Shakespeare does not need to be polished in order to be enjoyable. Twelfth Night is a fun play, and this is a light-hearted production with genuinely funny moments and many strong performances. If you’re looking for a way to spend an afternoon in May Week you could do a lot worse – even in the drizzle.

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