BWW Review: TWELFTH NIGHT, Bristol Old Vic
"If music be the food of love, play on'"... and play Wils Wilson does with Shakespeare's chaotic, sharp-witted comedy.
With cross-dressing, disguises, and a proto-discussion of gender politics, the text is playful and apt for contemporary adaptation, but Wilson's production, while playing with the gendering of its couples, withdraws and occupies a decidedly dated time and space.
While wonderfully entertaining, without distinct commentary on the Seventies setting or a timely political parallel, Bristol Old Vic and the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh's Twelfth Night is dated to the whimsical, psychedelic revels of a 1970s evening.
Housed in a beautiful abandoned building, New Age energy abounds in this gender-bent Bohemia: from the feathers, furs, and colourful caftans of Ana Inés Jabares-Pita's costumes to Meilyr Jones's eclectic music that blends choral beauty, acoustic ballads, and electric beats - all played with aplomb by the musical company - there's something authentically blasé about it all.
The tangles of the love triangle are less effective, with little time devoted to the blossoming affection between Colette Dalal Tchantcho's flamboyant Duke and Jade Ogugua's beguiling but guileless Viola whilst she's in disguise as her 'lost' brother Sebastian.
With Joanne Thomson as the sombre sibling often drowning her sorrows at the edges of the drama, as well as Lisa Dwyer Hogg's haughty Olivia, all the lovers are played by women - and while this is heartfelt and undoubtedly believable, it loses some of the homoerotic subtext between Viola and the Duke that is imbued in the play.
Wilson's joyous, buoyant direction devotes little time to the budding romances, and though the genders of the lovers are boldly and blissfully just so, there's room for a deeper probing of the gender roles at play, especially when it's there in the text to be developed. Wilson even begins to explore this with a 'play within a play' framing device that's abandoned once all the characters are introduced.
It's where the gender play is well-defined that the performance finds its platform-wearing feet. Dawn Sievewright is wild and loud as the troublemaker Toby Belch, and her troublemaking is all the more obvious and absurd as the Lord is addressed as 'Lady Tobi'.
And, it's from her and Maria's mischief that Christopher Green's magnificent Malvolio thrusts greatness upon us with a glam rock performance in his cross-garters.
Viola muses that fools are fellows "wise enough to play the fool". Wilson is wise to play up Twelfth Night's fooling with a cast as charming and comic as this, and it's from the chaotic fire of foolishness that the finest performances are forged.
Guy Hughes's idiotic Sir Andrew performs a lovelorn ode to his adored at the piano in white platforms and flares, and his performance is a tour-de-force of pathetic foolery, while Dylan Read's Feste is a dancing theatrical delight. At dawn on this Twelfth Night, the drama is almost forgotten after all the laughter, yet even then it lingers with Aly Macrae's peace-loving priest.
With its focus on the play's foolery, the performance is raucously entertaining, and though it often feels like simple folly, there is charm in its comical, musical, and colourful character. After all, "better a witty fool, than a foolish wit".
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic