April 6, 2014, by Peter Kirwan
Twelfth Night @ Liverpool Everyman
There was an awful moment in the closing night of the new Liverpool Everyman’s inaugural production of Twelfth Night, as Malvolio’s yellow stockings emerged, feet uppermost, through a trapdoor for an inverted prison sequence. The mechanism lifting the actor was misdirected, meaning that his feet pushed at the stage, which cracked and splintered before the mistake was halted and corrected. It was, perhaps, fitting that this bold new stage did not survive a flagrantly naughty production entirely unscathed.
After two years of darkness, Liverpool Everyman’s historic stage is finally fit for purpose. With a new circle, an extended stage, traps and flying equipment, and a new ventilation system, the new theatre is excitingly intimate, like a studio version of the RSC’s Swan. Gemma Bodinetz’s production delighted in stripping back the space to expose the full beauty of the revamped theatre, while also showing off the technical possibilities. Luxurious sofas and dozens of flower pots descended from the ceiling; a concertinaed set of arches appeared and disappeared to shape the space; and Viola emerged, spluttering and gasping, from an onstage pool of water in an opening that aped the RSC’s Shipwreck Trilogy from two years back. Illyria kept opening up to reveal new possibilities.
This was one of the warmest and funniest Twelfth Nights I’ve ever seen, a welcome change from more conceptually driven or darker readings of the play. The accents were mostly local and two of the company (Matthew Kelly and Nicholas Woodeson) were veterans of the Everyman’s famous 1974 ensemble, working together for the first time in forty years. There was a sense of joy in these actors working together, a playfulness that fed into the reading of the production. Jodie McNee’s initially dour Viola found herself quickly bantering with Feste and Fabian; Natalie Dew’s Olivia and Pauline Daniels’s Maria giggled childishly while sharing a large veil to welcome Cesario; even David Rubin’s Antonio helped initiate the joy as the twins reunited. There was little time in this carnival production for sustained hurt.
This was perhaps most apparent in a wonderful reading of Olivia. Buttoned up in black mourning dress, this youthful Olivia was nonetheless only partially invested in her mourning. Wide-eyed and wondrous, she embraced her passion for Cesario wholeheartedly, ripping open her dress to reveal heaving cleavage and throwing herself into Cesario’s arms. Her confidence was rarely dented by refusal, and she instead recoursed to deep sighs and winking smiles, oblivious to pain. One may read an element of denial into this, of course, but this made her first meeting with Luke Jerdy’s Sebastian all the more wonderful. A whirlwind of passion, she kissed him long and hard before dismissing her kinsmen, leaving him reeling. As he accepted her offer, the two took hands, suddenly giggling and gasping like teenagers, inciting sympathetic noises from the audience as they bashfully made their way offstage. The actor managed the tricky task of getting an audience to invest in her love, yet the reciprocity of affection allowed this to trump any concerns over the lingering confusion.
Viola’s love story was much harder won. McNee handled herself confidently as Cesario, relying simply on a casual posture and slicked back haircut to pose as a man rather than unnecessary mugging. Her main role was to capture something of the intensity of her attraction to Adam Levy’s somewhat preening Orsino. The two rolled together on his bed, he even straddling her as she lay beneath him. Her enjoyment of his company moved swiftly to pain as he left; it became clear that, while with him, she could lose herself in her feelings; apart from him, she slipped into hopelessness, clutching at her stomach. Her inner turmoil was indicated by her passionately singing ‘Come away death’ in a spotlight on a darkened stage, minutes before double-taking as Feste sang the same song.
Underpinning the two love plots was a wonderful ensemble for the scenes below stairs. Alan Stocks’s Fabian, dressed as a priest, channelled Father Jack by being slumped drunkenly in an armchair by a fire for the entire first half, only waking occasionally to grunt the line of a song or call for drink. Making him the priest who also married Olivia to Sebastian brought a homely dimension to the local ceremonies. Even more fascinating was Paul Duckworth’s Feste, first seen being scrubbed by Maria in a bath. As he prepared to exchange wits with Olivia, Feste revealed himself to be a scouse drag artist in the Lily Savage vein, applying lipstick and eye shadow and combining heels with braces and fedora. This arch, camp Feste brought an alternately acerbic and unguarded air to proceedings, commenting wryly on his peers while also provoking the louder expressions of carnival. When he revealed his vendetta against Malvolio at the play’s end, he did so in a bitter tone, allowing the darker side to emerge.
Adam Keast played an uncomplicatedly foppish Sir Andrew, with little curls in his hair and a guffawing, ignorant demeanour that was already an exasperation to Maria and Kelly’s Sir Toby. Andrew was unperturbed by events, unguarded in his admissions and always ready with a laugh as he tried to join in the jokes. The reactions of the others to him were priceless, particularly as the no-nonsense Maria mouthed a ‘what the fuck?!’ to Toby after Andrew’s complete bewilderment during the buttery bar joke. Where Andrew flamboyantly exaggerated the comic potential of each scene, Maria brought it crashing back down to earth as a gossipy Scouse maid who took charge of the incapable bunch of men in her care.
Matthew Kelly made for a camp Toby, less soak than mimic as he teased and mocked his companions. He made wonderful use of his statute in the fights and in intimidating Malvolio, over whom he towered, and kept things light and unthreatening throughout. It was Toby who presided over the midnight revels in a slightly less successful attempt to mimic Filter – as the clowns began to sing ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, they brought out a trolley of jellies for the audience, custard-pied a stagehand, got volunteers to sing lines and so on, although the party never entirely took off. Kelly’s strength was imagining Toby as the kind of disgraceful uncle who has ceased to care about decorum but still has the authority to demand things his own way.
Woodeson’s Malvolio, meanwhile, was short and officious, constantly clicking his pen or blowing on a whistle that hung about his neck. He was played as oily rather than pompous, taking no small pleasure in his promises of tattling and revenge and in knocking the party hat of the sleeping Fabian’s head. The garden scene was reasonably conservatively played, but stood out for his desperate mauling of MOAI to make it sound like a word, and for his sheer exuberance as he imagined his future glory. His subsequent embraces of Olivia veered perilously close to overpowering her before they were interrupted, lending value to his humiliation. It was a shame to leave him performing only with his legs while imprisoned, though this left the stage free for Feste’s virtuoso performance of Sir Topaz as American evangelical preacher.
The few quieter moments stood out in a noisy production: Malvolio’s final revenge delivered as a whisper; Viola and Sebastian’s embrace; the use of a tandem to show the passage of love relationships from Antonio and Sebastian to Viola and Sebastian and finally to Orsino and Viola. Yet this was ultimately a celebration; a celebration of the revivified Everyman family and theatre, as made explicit in a final dance and the conclusion of ‘we’ll strive to please you every day’ with Orsino’s plea of ‘If?’ to prompt applause. It’s been a long time since I’ve joined in a standing ovation, but this production felt like a gift, generated by and with an audience that felt the need for a celebration.