By Ben Clark
‘Are all the people mad?’, asks Sebastian upon arrival in Illyria. In this production, there was madness galore. It was boisterous, rambunctious, but most importantly, devilishly funny. There were one or two issues – projection being the main one – but you have to give these actors credit for exploiting (almost) every possibility for comedy in this perennially popular Shakespeare play.
The driving force behind much of the comedy were Danny Booth as the permanently-inebriated Sir Toby Belch and Dan Hodgkinson as his dim-witted sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. A stroke of directorial genius allowed this relationship to flourish on stage: Sir Andrew was played as camp and slightly effeminate, setting off in comparison Sir Toby’s bull-throated masculinity. Their friendship was very believable; their characterisation, unusually nuanced. Hodgkinson in particular deserves credit for getting across his character’s adulation for the worldly-wise Sir Toby, as well as the odd contrast between his humility (‘Many do call me fool’) and his assumed airs. This pair also provided a lot of the physical comedy, with multiple pratfalls, a few piggy-backs and even (memorably) a swan dive.
Two other characters stood out as being very funny, albeit in a slightly less consistent fashion. Jazzy Price as Malvolia – a feminised version of the original ‘Malvolio’ – had some fantastic moments in the first half of the play, doing justice to her character’s pettiness and self-importance. Barney Mercer as Feste was also devastatingly funny at times: he provided a good drinking-buddy for Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and his stint as Sir Topas was one of the highlights of the play.
As a result of these stellar performances, there was a tendency for the gulling of Malvolia to overshadow the love triangle between Olivia (Steph Sarratt), Viola (Emma Howell) and Orsino (Zac Tiplady). This is partly due to the nature of the play: the gulling plot is eminently the funnier of the two. That being said, there were some issues with projection that prevented some of the courtship scenes from hitting the mark. Of course, allowances must be made for an outdoor performance on a blustery day, but it was still slightly frustrating when important lines were lost to the winds.
Despite posing a problem for audibility, the outdoors were generally a help rather than a hinderance for this performance. From Dan Hodgkinson practising his sword-fighting on an upper level of the Fellow’s Garden, to Malvolia’s tormentors hiding behind a conveniently placed bush, the actors made good use of the space.
Finally, though I confess I’m not the best judge, the music sounded great – a three-piece band who also played some of the smaller roles in passable fashion. The song and dance for the final scene also looked very slick – clearly a lot of work had gone into the choreography.
All in all, I heartily recommend you grab a few tinnies and some snacks and head down to the Fellows’ Garden to catch this uproarious production whilst you still can.
Photograph: Castle Theatre Company.