Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed and Produced by Joanna Rosenfeld, Co-Produced by Conor Baum, Costumes provided by Gladrags Community Costume Resource. Set pieces and lighting provided by IC Theatre Brighton
Music direction by Natasha Kafka and performed by the cast. Next – and final – performances 28th and 29th August.
And it’s… There’s a real tease this week. Yellow-clad legs waving like a honey-waxed bee’s on Facebook asking us to guess. So this is the Wild Card week where something weird’s pulled out? ‘C’mon’ I say. ‘Well it’s not on the list….’ As it happens it’s a stunning production.
Director Joanna Rosenfeld never tells us the latest One Fell Swoop Unlocked Shakespeare title for a bit, this institution where a scratch performance can scale vertiginous insights, performative snatches of majesty. Rosenfeld sets the scene – the new white pavilion tent pitched in St Ann’s Scented Garden returns. Twelfth Night.
Where are we? A blazer of reds and a few blues – School’s Out and it’s the 1960s, when Eton schoolboys rendered a cheeky Latin version of ‘From Me To You’ (‘Ad Me Ad Te’) second in the roster here. Rosenfeld’s soundtrack is a mostly chronological scamper through the Beatles. We start with the ensemble’s glorious ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and we’ll see there’s much more from Natasha Kafka’s Feste than her way with the musical arrangements. ‘From Me To You’ comes next, marginally earlier but who cares?
David Sampson’s Orsino is a delight – leaping from melancholic brown study to dazzling keyboard in a trice, in command vocally and seeming distract but at the same time investing Orsino with the energy needed for limning love-notes. Samson brings Orsino’s ducally quick impatience and coincident melancholy, as well as tenderness and tetchiness when dealing with the mysterious youth Caesario who’s washed up as it were on his doorstep. Maybe it happens in Illyria. One Antonio would know.
But Caesario’s with another Sea Captain (Ava Dodsworth playing Curio too) who willingly lends man-up disguise for Viola to become Caesario and press to be court page.
There’s a case Rachel Mullock’s Viola and Dodsworth look at a glance blonde and strawberry-haired versions of each other, and you kind of wish. But that’s a visual not a dramatic version and when lost brother Sebastian – Ben Baeza – strides in, in a separate scene beloved of Alex Louise’s other Sea Captain – Antonio – there’s a sad erotic frisson between them. You see a rightness of Baeza’s swaggering vocal confidence matched by braggadocio and wonder when assailed by swordsmen and a beautiful rich woman he’s never met who wants his er sword in marriage. Hey ho, Baeza’s superb on bewildered accidie, letting himself be led off in a strange land by a very willing young lady. He’s also excellent intervening to trounce Aguecheek and Belch, though overpowered by sheer numbers in the latter fight scene, and tender in regard to Louise’s Antonio both at the outset and when encountering the luckless Antonio in chains at the end.
Mullock’s Viola is the star part, and Mullock possesses all the rationale and feeling, the quick impelling of someone versed in the part. Falling straight for Orsino as a boy she’s charged to woo his obsession, Oliiva, who can neve love him, and of course falls for disguised Viola instead. This is already agony to Viola/Caesario: ‘To woo your lady—’ then aside ‘Yet, a barful strife—. Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.’
Mullock’s thrilling and heart-rending, and when she declares ‘tis too hard a knot for me t’untie’ you get her full bewilderment. As Caesario in front of Olivia she’s boyish then transfixed in the instant knowledge that Olivia’s fallen for her – it strikes her quick as thought and Mullock shows she thinks Viola. Only in monologues do we encounter Viola, and a rapt one too, hinting elsewhere in her ‘patience on a monument’ speech to Orsino which she takes swiftly as one fearful of revealing too much.
Indeed Mullock almost squirms in front of Samson, the man she wants and who in nearly every production proves unworthy of her – Samson at least looks as if he’s robust enough to realise what he’s been missing, falls as instantly as Olivia has, in her case twice, once for each twin. Caesario’s a part too that spills into wonder at the end in her reveal
The only part muted is that very subtle scene between herself as Caesario and Orsino, where ‘Help’ comes on beautifully and Samson overbears it as you’d expect, but Mullock’s pivotal attraction to him can’t. It’s a difficult point to convey anyway. Just afterwards a magical rendering of ‘Yesterday’ from that summery white pavilion seems an ideal interlude.
Lexi Pickett’s Olivia is both regal and confused, quick like Mullock and more direct in both scorn for Orsino – whom she doesn’t meet till the end – and straightforward in desires, given a wild if complicated permission by class.
Pickett’s transition from hauteur to sexual importuning is rapid and has to negotiate three other major nuances: dealing with Malvolio and his own obsession with her as emerges, and through him conveying displeasure at relatives (never directly, there’s the de haut en bas); to servant Maria, to whom she conveys displeasure of Belch too, but with greater intimacy. Finally to her ‘licensed Fool’ Feste. To the last – Kafka on speed, but wait, Pickett’s bright and mettled. To Malvolio careful as she copes with his prickliness (and this one really is). Only with Rosanna Bini’s Maria can she unburden something – but decidedly not all.
Olivia’s been played as befitting her role as head of a ducal household after her father’s and particularly brother’s death. There’s enough headlong license to point up red lines Olivia crosses in her ‘I love thee.’ Which daring for all Viola’s intrepid survival skills she dare not emulate to Orsino, fixated as he is on Olivia. Pickett’s passionate, jumps on Mullock, follows recent tradition in almost ravishing her with declarative kisses. Pickett’s bewilderment later on confusing and enjoying the twins is delicious.
Rosanna Bini as Maria is pert and forward, able to convey her mistress’s displeasure without Malvolio, and tart with Nick Quirke’s Sir Toby Belch and scornful to Benjamin Darlington’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The trio are blissful – concocting, plotting, a triumvirate of triangulation and flurry with terrific energy. Bini enjoys pace and gleeful dispatch – and in her voice a glint of vengeance.
Quirke making a welcome return to both the UK and indeed St Ann’s where he directed a Twelfth Night exactly a decade ago in his own company, ramps up Belch in a return to the bluster with an undertow of bullying even malice allowing him to make certain roles his own (his Touchstone in Carole Bremson’s 2011-12 A Midsummer Night’s Madness was positively dangerous).
Quirke’s a consummate Shakespearean, leaps at this wearied Belch in one final hurdle before rewarding Maria with marriage. With Darlington’s Aguecheek he finds a superb sparring as they dance with their knees up in their misplaced naming of the parts of Taurus (clue: it’s the throat). Their absurd duet’s one of this production’s highlights.
Quirke’s energy is high and he really needs it as Darlington explodes on the scene with his wailing Aguecheek. This is a stunning performance, the best Aguecheek I’ve seen, and I don’t exclude the magnificent NT production with Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. There’s little out there to touch this case of wailing self-pity and sheer histrionics, always in character. Darlington’s ‘I was adored once’ hangs in the air, fobs and fops off every possible reason for not fighting Caesario, both being played by Belch and Maria. Darlington’s way of almost collapsing out behind the shrubbery on the Malvolio letter scene is again an object lesson in falling.
If Darlington’s consummate and camp Conor Baum as Malvolio matches him with the same energy – one director present declared they’d be ideal in a production (The Man of Mode) where they might swap chief parts. It’s true. They’ve paired in numerous OFS productions before but this time their energies match and foil in a skirl of high jinks and painful delusions. Baum’s Malvolio is again stunning. Just watch his waving those yellow cross-gartered legs in the air.
OK he’s up against Greig here and others like Stephen Fry who played it tragically, but Baum’s energy is higher, less subdued on dignity more liable to take offence at anything. His way with Bini is like a verbal snap, with Caesario worse – flinging his ring on the ground with venom, not simple contempt – and with Darlington and Quirke malice itself coiled on a monument, striking at both.
His great letter-speech is handled on point, every note laid with deeper delusion and the ‘I shall smile’ is truly squirmable.
Baum brings though to his imprisonment a piteous bewildering in Bini’s and Kafka’s hands and his final explosion shows he’ll never forgive. Baum’s I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’ really slaps ‘pack’ as a bark. Unreconciled, this Malvolio’s torn into villainous rage, mortified by a passion exposed, ridiculed and however well-meaning Olivia is, emotionally dismissed.
Natasha Kafka is another absolutely outstanding performer here in a strong cast. Not content with arranging the songs – and surely her two-violin accompaniment to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is the masterpiece – Kafka’s Feste is sharp yet lyrical, leading ensemble singing – not (sadly in a way) the set songs but in Beatles numbers. Her prose Feste’s sudden with moments of struck wit, her verse persona now limited. This Feste bounces off non-existent walls. Trees perhaps.
To Baum she twists her Sir Topaz accent round her Feste one in a rapid-fire oscillation, with professional assurance in just hours – this as a young actor starting out. Beyond this Kafka’s on point when investing Feste with a knowing sexual insight, an edgy desire to push Pickett’s already anxious Olivia and a smorgasbord of mockery to Caesario in whom she scents danger, in her ‘I do not like you’.
Sharon Drain’s Fabian is sober and impresses us with a kind of decency behind the jinks – and it’s Fabian whose function it is to bear news: the other pranksters Belch and Maria have effectively eloped. The OFS-seasoned Drain brings a credible level of contrition to Fabian, suggesting she might not be cast off perhaps.
Alex Louise’s Antonio is visibly in love with Baeza’s Sebastian, importuning him in a winding of some delicacy, all to no avail. Louise conveys Antonio’s hurt on Sebastian’s seeming non-recognition and shaking-off fury at her tormentors. Her way with Mullock’s mistook twin is passionate and a tiny bit heartbreaking. Baeza’s full-blooded recognition of her at the end, after all her durance and imprisoning, seems an emotional release for both.
Katarina Henderson’s poise continues to impress quietly with small roles – here as Valentine and Servant. All these cameos build for terrific experience in young cast members.
Ava Dodsworth, Mullock’s slightly redder-haired double this week plays smaller roles – servant Curio and Sea Captain with just the right solicitude and faintly gruff warmth in the latter role.
Stalwart Katey Ann Fraser this week takes the small role of 1st officer with habitual aplomb. Alissandra Henderson continues strong in her tiny roles of Priest and 2nd Officer.
The end’s elegaic too, with Kafka’s Feste leading the cast in ‘Let It Be’. A director whispered cheekily: ‘After the weather and as ‘for the rain it raineth’ is cut maybe ‘Here comes the sun’ would have been inspired!’ True, though ‘Let it Be’ is a balm: Malvolio’s non-appeasement and the falling-out of circumstance, falling-in of love being let be to blossom. Perhaps too it’s the end of innocence.
Rosenfeld’s most recent, Brighton Shakespeare journey started as Olivia in Nick Quirke’s Twelfth Night at this very place in St Ann’s, in 2012. Her direction, as with the past two productions, impresses first in its restless inventiveness, mining to reveal a mineral gleam, a new earth in the old stamping ground. You see her own Shakespearean feel grow. Second, Rosenfeld knows the text and OFS’s core can take anything; and each time she mates a new concept to a classic you can see it fizz and explode like a great firework in a little room. Sometimes there’s debris.
Here it’s marrying the giddiness of Twelfth Night to adolescent wildness. It works wonderfully on a visceral and physical level, and on several others. On a few levels like ‘I was adored once’ you can get away with adolescent self-pity, that juvenile senescence beloved of some teens. Not all notes can be struck, but that virtually never happens. I can think of only one recent director: Nick Hytner’s productions, particularly his A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So as her directing draws to a close this time, it’d be fascinating to see Rosenfeld direct more of the utterly strange side of Shakespeare’s canon: next year, all willing, she will. Next week she’s in the cast and Baum helms the last outing this year.
A revelatory, energised Twelfth Night. OFS are now a company with a core of real Shakespeareans several of whom 16 months ago had never played Shakespeare. How far they’ve come then in the company of Darlington who’s played with the RSC, returnees like Quirke who lit up Brighton with a series of Festival Shakespeare and other productions between 2009-16. Baum – himself now working at the Globe – and Rosenfeld have an ensemble on their hands they intend to take forward. With a 40-strong audience the word’s beginning to get out that this is a serious company. It might have started with lockdown and after. It’s now a force. Don’t miss next week’s season finale.
Viola Rachel Mullock
Sebastian Ben Baeza
Olivia Lexi Pickett
Duke Orsino David Sampson
Malvolio Conor Baum
Maria Rosanna Bini
Sir Toby Belch Nick Quirke
Sir Andrew Aguecheek Benjamin Darlington
Feste, the Fool Natasha Kafka
Fabian Sharon Drain
Antonio Alex Louise
Valentine/Servant Katarina Henderson
Curio/Sea Captain Ava Dodsworth
1st Officer Katey Ann Fraser
Priest/2nd Officer Alissandra Henderson