Twelfth Night

Ben Kavanagh 19 February 2010

Cambridge Arts Theatre – 7.45pm Tues 16th-Sat 20th February 2010


Although Twelfth Night is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s comedies, there is no denying its confused nature when evaluating the sordid and deeply disturbing happenings which occur within in it, and no production realises this better than Martin Huston’s, playing this week at the Arts Theatre.

In a theatrical climate which demands concepts and re-imaginings of Shakespeare which all too often prove to be either forced or just absurdly incongruous, this production’s ideas are innovative and intriguing, not to mention visually stunning in practice.

As the safety curtain rose on Act One murmurs could be heard throughout the auditorium coming from an audience who were in awe of a phenomenal set design. Thomas Roger’s design is that of a mental institution, run down and neglected but for the odd patient roaming it! Broken windows, rusty old pipes and up-turned chairs, the set is exquisite in its detail.

As each door is opened a new idea is unveiled: a door opens revealing the patient’s luggage stacked up, through another we see clipboards hung perfectly and a microphone that boomed out messages to the institution.

Simon Gethin Thomas’ lighting compliments these ideas beautifully; occasionally flickering lights give an eerie sense of abandonment. The lighting adds a bare and barren feel reiterating the idea of characters lost in their madness.

Although the production elements are quite clearly mesmerising that is not to say that I sat watching only five doors and a dishevelled Christmas tree for two hours. No.

This production has a stellar cast which had the audience laughing throughout whilst at the same time expressing a kind of internal severity which grows in intensity until the closing moments of the play when it releases itself in a highly dramatic and truly thought-provoking way.

The ensemble feel of the cast is sound but occasionally certain actors struck me as being particularly noteworthy. Strong female performances came from Celeste Dring and Eve Rosato. Dring’s Viola is subtle and nuanced with some moments of theatrical magic such as the time when she looks in the mirror contemplating her fate. Rosato’s Maria is a playful creature always in control but with a touch of menace. At several points her stage presence would inject a scene that slightly dragged with real ferocity.

Strong male performances come in the form of Josh Higgot’s gluttonous Sir Toby Belch, and Oliver Soden’s wincing Malvolio.

Dressed in his pyjamas and a filthy Santa costume Higgot has the audience in the palm of his hand as the naughty Belch. Constantly eating and glugging alcohol he is a chief contributor to the comedy of the production thanks to his ever changing facial expressions and sharp comic delivery.

Soden’s yellow stocking-wearing, cross-gartered steward is equally thrilling and of the cast engages the most expertly with the audience. From the moment he first walks on stage and slamming the door in Maria’s face we see the cruel and disregarding nature of the proud steward and yet, as Belch, Aguecheek, Maria and Feste began to play with his affections the audience soon melted.

Soden’s eloquent tongue and flowery mannerisms make his Malvolio endearing and, in light of this, really quite tragic.

While one laughs at the man revealing his yellow stockings hidden coyly under his trousers at one moment, one gasps at his delivery of the most haunting line in the play “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” leaving the room on the verge of tears from the pain of his cross gartering. It is a moment which both reveals the sheer desperation in Soden’s performance as well as a flash of pure directorial genius.

This production does have its occasional weaknesses though, which fall into the categories of either direction which doesn’t always fully commit enough to its concept or actors who adopt a slightly archaic performance style.

Anna Maguire finds little depth in Olivia with a rather bland interpretation which fails to address both Olivia’s frustration at Orsino’s unwanted love and the tenderness her character should feel towards the broken Malvolio in the closing scene.

Simon Haines has the opposite problem; while Haines clearly knows what he is saying the delivery becomes affected and overdone. Movement also hinders Haines and he often comes across as looking uncomfortable in his own physicality on stage.

These weaknesses are no major distraction though.

Make no mistake Hutson’s interpretation of this Shakespeare classic is a real lesson in a vivacious idea well exercised.

Ben Kavanagh