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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Directed by Sean Holmes (Assistant Director Prime Isaac), Jean Chan creates a fade-out Los Illyria anywhere from the 1960s on. Composer Jim Fortune’s haunted then bluesy then pop score is played by Joley Cragg, Zachary Gvirtzman, Preetha, Fred Thomas, Nick Pynn (instruments not specified). Choreographer Saha Milavec Davies, Sydney Florence supervises the fantastical costumes made by a team of ten. Tess Dignan Head of Voice. Deputy Text Associate Christine Schmidle. Till October 30th.


Show me the way to uh-Illyria – the suspended sign ‘(Welcome to Illyria’) in best Texas technicolour is a bit like the song; where 1601 figures wash up in a curious neglected 1960s wastescape of broken truck (stage right) car door (left, with tyres) and upstage a rocking-tiger and to the left a fruit machine. Has Orsino thrown all his toys into the desert?

The palaces of both aristos share central cerulean blue doors, corrugated iron painted garishly all over with psychedelic shades that’d give you a headache and which suit most of all the guy who doesn’t live there but like lichen has stuck to it: Tex-hatted Sir Toby Belch. More of her in a mo.

Scenery’s the only occult note in one of the most touching and truthful  Twelfth Nights I’ve seen. It does though invoke that end-of-Christmas-party feel where the clue’s in the title. To underscore that, we get a wonderful phut at the end when sign and fruit machine splutter into sad, brief lights.

There’s been exhilarating productions here that don’t involve Globe Artistic Director Michelle Terry. Still, there’s no getting round that once she takes a central role everything amps up around her – a lot more than with those amp-blown props.

The cast is first rate, sometimes doubling from the Globe’s Dream  (catch them on the site or recognise them live); interpretations everywhere breathe different atmospheres – lovers, tricksters, and plot-useful idiots. Then those worlds collide.

Directed by Globe Associate Sean Holmes (Assistant Director Prime Isaac), this like the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet is a new production, though at 2 hours 26 without a break a much fuller one. The only notable elision – if you know the plot – is reading and discarding the challenge letter of Aguecheek. That’s tiny and so much is left in and amplified we see Twelfth Night more intimately and more fully than most.

Choreographer Saha Milavec Davies, Sydney Florence supervises those fantastical costumes – all emerald black and silver slash from shipwrecked Viola, Sebastian, Viola’s sea captain in piped red and gold from a later period, and more mutedly Sebastian’s quasi-pirate saviour Antonio. Other costumes will walk on soon.

A commanding feature is song: this production gives us excess of it and at points the audience join in. More importantly it amplifies the very end-of-festival feel, taking the pulse of music throughout. The centrepiece – a wondrously dilated ensemble – we’ll come to.

Composer Jim Fortune’s haunted then bluesy then pop score is played from the gallery by Joley Cragg, Zachary Gvirtzman, Preetha, Fred Thomas, Nick Pynn. It’s the haunting end of something, blown chromatic and ghostly, that’s the most memorable undersong.

And that’s where we start with Victoria Elliott’s moonlighting Feste, who sadly has a new moonboot, crutched with broken metatarsals, as we’re told at the outset. Elliott sings and riffs through a stitch of the songs we know, adds several we don’t. Holding the stage with a soaring soprano-line from the start she brings a Feste-charactered skirl and rasp to a presence that radiates song. It says a huge amount about this production that crutches and ‘left leg’ – the uninjured one – get new gestures and new laughs fitted just for this. Elliot’s kitted in Illyria’s Amarillo look, cap and casuals, contrasting the aristos, chiming with Belch and others.

Bryan Dick makes of Orsino a more appealing, more active  black-and-plum-suited glum than we sometimes get. He’s not repining, a clever Aguecheek, as he can be: he must be worthy of someone’s love, though no-one can match Viola. Dick energises him, full of dispatch. Because we need to slow down certain elements elsewhere we speed up to avoid cuts. It works very well. Dick’s growing attraction to Viola – and hers more palpably for him – is achingly drawn out, till he snaps to, utterly confused.

Rachel Hannah Clarke’s Valentine – a sort of truculent equivalent to Olivia’s Malvolio – isn’t treated well despite her quasi airline green-turquoise livery of cap and slashed attire. Clarke’s given time to inhabit her small role. Clarke also plays the tint role of arresting Curio in full riot cop gear.

Michelle Terry’s Viola bobs up emerald-pristine from the wrack with Ciaran O’Brien’s first role as Sea Captain, in that red-and-gold military thingy. Even here, there’s a queasy interchange where Terry’s Viola is imperious, keeping edgy distance and attempting bribes: the sea-captain’s gnarled nobility has the last word, shaming her with tossing her money back. You feel Viola’s on a journey to lose fearful hauteur; her nature quickly directs her. Her brother doesn’t get the chance.

Everywhere Terry moves through Viola living her character so much to the full that when she comes up against a few saws on women’s frailty she puts them in quotes-marks with a ‘yeah, yeah’ shrug of boredom (earns laughter) then turns into a heart-breaking truth.

Not simply in her soliloquies but naturally in those interchanges with each character, chiefly Orsino and Olivia, this Viola is both fearful from the start and overwhelmed with her attraction, and by it. Everywhere she realizes before anyone else (Feste her only rival in a more removed sphere) what others feel.

‘I am the man’ she speaks in emphatic, dazed wonderment of Olivia. A chime strikes and in its clap she realizes ’O time thou must untangle this, not I’; then diminuendos to: ‘It is too hard a knot for me t’untie’ in a shrinking, distinct voice. Such new-minted detail is often at a premium, but this production revels in it.

Viola’s growing attraction for Orsino – she’s had three months of it as we jump-cut with her in his service – is palpable. From tremulous ‘myself would be his wife’ when tasked with wooing Olivia as the boy Cesario, through to showing how affection should work upbraiding Orsino’s misogynistic degradation of love with her ‘father’s daughter’ then touching and eventually trying to kiss him. Orlando’s overwhelmed too and the pull-away’s heartrending. Terry manages this with enormous clarity but intimately too.

Shona Babayemi’s imperious Olivia is first veiled all in black and then bursting with an outré Vegas-vampy red for her love: it’s the way she gradually turns up her own volume, from icy ringing commands Babayemi’s softening is ever palpable.

Here, truthfully this Olivia is a countess still and doesn’t – as some – leap onto Viola. The text shows how far she’s overstepping by even announcing her love. Here Babayemi makes that shocking enough. Warm, imperious when needing to be – as in her bringing order to the riotous climax breaking out in her own house – she’s a strong consistent Olivia in her growth. As in the Dream, Babayemi can rush her words and isn’t always clear, but her arc and command are pitch-perfect.

We’re often told Nadine Higgin’s is the first female Sir Toby Belch. Bring me excess of them too then. It’s odd we’ve not had one before. Leather-coated and hat-welded Higgin smashes Belch into a beer-carrying beer-spilling wisecracking dancer of measures, singer of songs and with Maria, Feste and that lamentable Aguecheek provide an oasis of nonsense and melancholy to make this production eddy almost like As You Like It. Except beer exploding slurping and splashing the Globe stage into a real alehouse. Darkness though haunts this January-ward season just as July haunts Arden.

The centrepiece is not just Feste’s songs from the texts but taking the text’s word ‘catches’ creating one out of air in Orlando Gibbons-style and throwing it on the wind so each singer joins in canon. And don’t even get me started about the Sound of Music…. Fortune’s score invents so many snatches all along it’s impossible to catch them. Belch and Feste chiefly do. The ensemble here pushes Twelfth Night into new territory.

His dancing-partner George Fouracres’ Sir Andrew Augecheek enters like an Illyrian which he isn’t, in light-turqouisejakcet  and pink trousers and later on flinching with a fencing suit. What Fouracres brigs is such idiocy that when he switches to pathos the audience don’t always get it. ‘I was adored once’ he says utterly sincerely. Titter. He keeps the slunk-on-column pose; it sinks in.

One fear great houses harboured was how guests corrupt servants: easy to see why. Olivia’s excess is to keep on a gloomy steward to suit her; cracks show. Olivia’s Nadi Kemp-Sayfi Maria is both chiding of Belch and Aguecheek at the start, then swiftly complicit.

Kemp-Sayfi’s a crisp independent Maria in an electric blue waistcoat who shows contempt for Belch’s leather jacket, yet solicitude for his deliverance. Her best moment is being seduced not by Belch but by quietly-singing Feste, when that singing-party starts in earnest and even Aguecheek rustles up a guitar. The way Maria’s gradually drawn in perfectly shows her love of wit and joy over Olivia’s reign, her readiness to plot.

Jacoba Williams’ downright Brummy Fabian picks this up with ironic detachment then quickening glee. She’s given lift-off in a gloriously OTT turquoise flunky-suit, half-Rococo-Vegas croupier and half obscure American airline 50 years ago. Cap’s a give-away. You wonder what order – if any – will be restored with a new husband like Sebastian.

Sophie Russell’s Malvolio is pushed aside a little. It’s not that Russell underplays her part, but that the production’s shrunk her tragedy. At first in black, then a whole body-stocking of yellow and black cross-gartering that later gets besmirched, Malvolio’s command seems shaky from the start. Maria has marginally more authority since she can reason.

Russell though really makes her set-piece gleam with self-discovery and of course self-betrayal. Her later degradation in the cellarage – hands protruding like Harry Lime’s in his bid for freedom in The Third Man – is made horrible. Feste throws a bucket of offal down her hatch and she later emerges caked in blood. She’s invisible then and you feel a little less visible throughout – less dreaded.

Productions have bigged up Malvolio; this is a corrective. Thrown ‘brings in his revenges’ by Feste at the end Russell like everyone else I’ve seen fails to catch with ‘I’ll be revenged’, personal pronoun twisting back, but emphasises a blast of unreconciled fury ‘on the whole pack of you’, stalking into a Puritan future.

The Fop-ex-machina in Ciaran O’Brien’s Sebastian is Restoration, and here’s a stroke of brilliance. Sebastian’s a bland bore, a hunk with nothing like the wit bar some well-founded lines to seduce Olivia the way his sister tries not to do.

Here though O’Brien plays him up by slowing delivery, emphasising a fluted voice, an affecting self-regard that falls ready to act with sword or beautiful lady suddenly emerging to demand marriage. If Viola’s able to present as a boy, her brother’s quite feminine and it works ideally.

Investing every word with sense and reason, O’Brien almost convinces us Olivia won’t mind too much. He can look like Terry, is shortish – Olivia leans over him too – is easily the most convincing sibling fit I’ve seen; and the most interesting.

That leaves the love that dare not fulfil its name. Peter Bourke’s red-wigged Antonio salts his voice and rasps his love, and you can see his desire for the soft youthful Sebastian O’Brien insinuates as an opposite. This Sebastian’s knowing, warm and grateful, quick to see Antonio’s offering him one kind of love, but chooses against. Bourke’s emotions ripple through baffled love, railing at ingratitude and seeming hopelessness, nearer than Malvolio to tragedy. When O’Brien recognises Antonio and others ahead of his sister, it seems just: something’s released, dark dispels.

That final recognition – bar a touching one between Olivia and Viola right at the end – is where everything mists over. Everyone’s spellbound by the identical twins’ attire and mien but Sebastian. The comedy of O’Brien thanking everyone from Olivia Orlando and Antonio, preludes noting a finally speechless Viola. The way O’Brien and Terry negotiate disbelief – though Viola’s had warning – is breathtaking. And no-one breathes. When Terry removes her twin-tunic there’s an emotional exhalation and embrace I’ve never seen. It’s more intense in sheer joy than any other love on this stage.

Two days ago I wrote of the exciting if unloving Romeo and Juliet ‘we should be streaming not giggling.’ Here emphatically we do both.