“Ay marry, what is he?”
It’s over six months since Propeller started their most recent tour and so a similar amount of time since I saw Twelfth Night back in Guildford, a production I enjoyed immensely and ranked as my 13th favourite of the year. And as is now their wont, their tour makes a late stop at Edward Hall’s London abode at the Hampstead Theatre for an extended stay where both their productions (The Taming of the Shrew is the other this time round) will play in rep. Getting to revisit a show like this is something of a luxury and a rare opportunity at that, I ummed and aahed briefly about booking again but the lure of the front row was too strong for me to resist.
And I am glad I went back for seconds, for this really is my kind of Shakespearean comedy. Not so much in the all-male playing of it but rather in the restraint with which it goes for the laughs, concentrating instead on a tone of sustained melancholy. In emphasising the bittersweet notes as it does – from the start, it is clear Liam O’Brien’s Feste prefers a more mournful ballad – the play is given, for me at least, a greater sense of depth. A real feeling of loneliness, pain and bitterness to so many of these characters creates an ideal counterweight to the broad humour once it comes and makes us feel their ups and downs so much more.
With their customary level of detail on these characters, Edward Hall’s company really bring a revivifying freshness to the play that makes a new kind of sense out of such familiar things. Vince Leigh’s embittered Sir Toby is extraordinary – there’s something tragic about his insistence on maintaining a lifestyle of drunken carousing with John Dougall’s doddery Aguecheek – both men trying to live off past glories -but there’s also still something of a roguish glint in his eye and the way in which his relationship with Gary Shelford’s self-assured Maria is sketched out hides none of their mutual attraction and shows their eventual betrothal as a natural progression.
Similarly, the soul-searching anguish wracking Christopher Heyward’s Duke Orsino makes him a much more sympathetic figure than usual, Chris Myles brings enough bite to his Malvolio to make him someone that people would actually want to plot against, and even Finn Hanlon’s Antonio strikes us hard emotionally with his obvious affection for Sebastian. This is a red-blooded take on Twelfth Night from top to bottom though, giving us a strong sense of the burgeoning sexuality that drives so many of them. Ben Allen’s Olivia cannot wait to rip off her mourning clothes to get it on with Joseph Chance’s Cesario or indeed Dan Wheeler’s Sebastian and one really feels the charge between Orsino and Cesario too, a feeling that something meaningful really could happen there.
I said previously that this is funny, sexy and moving Shakespeare and second time around, I’d have to agree with my own assessment!