By Helen Chatterton
Productions of Shakespeare can often divide audiences into those who know and understand the play, and those who haven’t. HBT’s production of Twelfth Night may prove to be one of this category. Nevertheless, there is a genuine and largely successful effort to portray comedy throughout, which should be commended given the pre-show difficulties faced by the team.
The play follows the separation of twins Viola (Rosie Minnitt) and Sebastian (Josie Williams) in a shipwreck, and the issues of love and conflict they face before they are reunited. The play’s complex plot is one that requires explicit character identification and awareness throughout, and demands the audience to play close attention. The production’s coherence was not aided by frequent gender-blind casting and occasional failure to successfully portray male characters, which significantly undermined the concept of the presence of twins, pivotal to the closing moments.
Two days before it was due to open, the cast was down three members. In light of such, it is very impressive that the cast has managed to pull together to create a performance of any kind, and the standard of said performance was a merit unto itself.
Unsurprisingly, Charlie Keable (playing the role of Sir Toby Belch), was not completely off script, at times relying on prompts or reading the text. That being said, Keable commanded the stage as one of the funniest characters, and pulled off any mishaps with a contagious smile. The first slip up was a little jarring, but it soon became just another element of comedy. Whilst the beer cans he carried may very well have aided his portrayal of such, he portrayed the role of the drunk with ease. Each of his appearances left the audience laughing, and his next hotly anticipated.
Keable was joined by fellow step-in Emily McLean as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and their pairing was a highlight of the show. When accompanied by Kesia Schofield’s Fabian in the Box Tree scene, the three made the most of their opportunity to make the audience laugh. Director Jennifer Baker’s decision to adapt some of the original lines in this scene, as well as throughout the play, was one that created additional moments of comedy.
A key performance came from Ginny Leigh as Malvolio, who was another master of comedy. A particular success was their facial expressions; their gormless grin bought many laughs of its own accord. The cast as a whole should be commended for their vocal capability, making Shakespeare sound more interesting than the drone-like quality that iambic pentameter can sometimes take on. Similarly, the cast were largely entertaining and had evidently put a lot of effort into characterisation.
The performance was accompanied by live music from Florence Russell, Georgie Proctor and Martha Bozic, who were joined by the singing of Meriel Laura Killeen as the fool Feste. The musical talents of the trio were impressive, but the acting of the ensemble seemed a little lack lustre in contrast to the strength of other cast members. Killeen’s performance in the Sir Topaz scene was very skilfully handled.
The performance is set in a section of Bede Lawn in St Hild and St Bede College. Surrounded by trees, bushes and flowers, the play is staged in the round, with the cast utilising a number of entrances. The cast handled this well, never performing in any one particular direction. In addition to such, parts of the play were continued outside of the round, with characters ‘hiding’ in the bushes. With the recent warm weather, this lent itself to a relaxed and informal atmosphere. The result of such was to make the play feel more accessible and enjoyable. However, this intimate setting, in turn, means that the audience is crucial in creating atmosphere: the failure to laugh at the correct moment may very easily leave the air uncomfortable.
The choice to clothe the cast in more modern-day clothing was one that enhanced the fathomable nature of the production. However, there were some more rogue elements, such as the adornment of a hospital gown in lieu of pyjamas.
In terms of Shakespeare, HBT’s production has hardly reinvented the wheel, and for some may prove an unhappy return to GCSE English class. However, in consideration of the difficulties the team has had to overcome, the play is a comedic success and had potential to be even greater had luck not been against them.
‘Twelfth Night’ will be performed in Hild Bede from Thursday, 22nd June until Friday 23rd June at 15:00, with a performance at 18:00 on Thursday. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Hild Bede Theatre