As confused as it is funny, Cambridge University European Theatre Group’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night conflates comedy with pantomime. While the acting is stellar, some directorial decisions and textual cuts often obscure what is both comic and tragic in the play.
Although the production is described as being “set against a backdrop of 1950s Europe”, the set and costumes seem to contradict one another, with a very Art Deco staging in conflict with other elements: upon playing the fool to Olivia (Julia Kass), Feste (Rosanna Suppa) mimes holding a microphone – a very small detail, but one which illustrates the confused direction of this Twelfth Night.
However, what is most unbalanced in this production is the relationship between comedy and tragedy. The comic elements are emphasised, often to great effect (the timing of Zak Ghazi-Torbati as Sir Toby was impeccable), however this often led us into the realm of slapstick, which while having a role to play in Shakespeare, should not permeate every line and every scene. In some instances, moments of true slapstick are missed in the direction – the description of Sir Andrew’s (Ryan Monk) ‘Viol da Gamba’ playing demands to be illustrated. Interestingly, the largest laugh of the night came from a fantastically well-judged improvisation from Suppa as Feste, exclaiming that Sir Toby’s surgeon wasn’t available because he was ‘'on strike'’!
While many moments of comedy were successful, a slight lack of subtlety in direction led more serious moments to lose weight and poignancy. The wronging of Malvolio (played ably by Ben Walsh) can be bittersweet in the right hands, but was farcical here, while Feste’s final line – '‘and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges'’ – lost impact in its delivery.
Nonetheless, some good performances improved the production, with Suppa in particular showing nuance and flashes of darkness as the jazzy Feste, Joe Pitts bringing endearing earnestness to his Sebastian and Aoife Kennan really doing justice to the verse. In some instances, Shakespeare’s text lost its clarity and potency because of both directorial choices and delivery. It was also bizarre that strong northern accents were used to denote those of a lower status in the play.
This production does have its draws – interesting use of jazz music and some good slapstick performances among others – and the acting is generally impressive, however a confused impression remains. Whether this is due to unexplained editing of the text, heavy reliance on physical humour or conflicting directorial decisions is unclear, but you could do worse than to watch Kenneth Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, in order to gauge the style.
Twelfth Night runs at the ADC Theatre until 16th January