Edinburgh Fringe 2012
A quite outstanding interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s great comedies, Twelfth Night. It’s got just about everything – key soliloquies, comic asides, neat segues and a bucket load of beautifully timed slapstick, comic fights and lovers chasing each other around the auditorium in true Benny Hill fashion. And through all this shines the beauty of Shakespeare’s prose.
To the cramped confines of Augustine’s Study for a performance of Twelfth Night aimed squarely at the younger generation by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. An impressively coloured backdrop in the form of a picture postcard from the sea-side resort of Illyria sets the scene. We’re on holiday judging by the jolly clothing disported by the gang of six (three boys, three girls) who enthusiastically greet each member of the audience like a long lost friend before bursting into a refrain of “I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside” to set the scene.
As we set sail, our narrator (effectively a combination of Maria and Feste for all you TN aficionados out there) outlines the plot. Basically TN is a play that shows the silly things people do when they fall in love – with one another, with the wrong person and with themselves. Throw in a bit of cross dressing, a girl pretending she is a boy and copious quantities of scheming, drinking and belching and that’s about it. Oh, and everyone ends up living happily ever after as the tangle finally unwinds.
Getting Shakespeare across to adults can be challenging enough but how do you grab and hold the attention of those in the show’s target 5-15 age range? Simple – have the narrator act as an interpreter using 21st century tongue, distill each scene to the key soliloquies and interchanges and substitute asides to fill in the blanks. Oh, and throw in a few more modern songs in place of the attractive 16th century score that tends to populate the “adult” version of TN and round it off with beautifully timed slapstick, comic fights and lovers chasing each other around the auditorium in true Benny Hill fashion.
It’s an absolutely madcap performance as the cast use mime, music, dance, pure physical theatre and some excellent character acting to cram the whole show into an hour. The wonderfully charismatic Sir Toby Belch lives up to his name causing cackles from the junior end of the audience and merriment from those of a supposedly more mature disposition whilst Sir Andrew Aguecheek is wonderfully effete, Viola earnest, Cesario dashing, Sebastian frustrated, Viola desperate, Maria scheming and Malvolio pompous. There are quite a few more characters involved as well causing hilarity and chaos as the actors flit from one role to another with rapid changes of costume, voice and physical demeanor.
There’s great use of a wide variety of props and sounds – a blanket to “hide” the conspirators as they taunt Malvolio, tank tops to delineate the sex of the character with bells, whistles, spoons and other implements used creatively to add noise and realism to the fight scenes being just a few examples. The audience is invited to get involved on a number of occasions, and does so with gusto. And the uninhibited nature of the younger members meant they just joined in with the proceedings on a whim at other points in the performance. Wonderful!
The denouement arrives with a rousing rendition of “When I was and a little tiny boy” cleverly set to the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” bringing down the curtain on a truly outstanding piece of theatre. Michael Gove (Education Minister for those of you not into UK politics) wants greater cerebral content to our curriculum, for which read a return to dead boring Latin, Greek and a dull interpretation of the classics like TN. Why not just employ the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School instead? It’s a superb way to introduce anyone (never mind kids) to the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and storytelling.
Any show that can keep everyone in the 5-15 year range completely hooked for an hour merits top marks in my view. Toss in the outstanding display in terms of mime, farce, chase, fight, other forms of physical theatre (mimicking going down a set of steps time and again under cover of a sea-side wind shield is just one example of many) and the ability to clearly delineate the array of characters that each actor needed to work with, marks this company and production out as exceptional.
I’d thought about quizzing some of the families afterwards to see what each member had got out of the performance. In the end, I had no need to. The sustained applause and repeat curtain calls told me everything I needed to know. Young or old, Shakespeare buff or not, this show is for you.