May 30, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (Propeller) @ Theatre Royal, Nottingham

Propeller’s new season is their first with no brand new production, the company instead touring revivals of its acclaimed 2006-07 Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew, the tour on which I first encountered them. Looking back over my backlog of reviews, Propeller have consistently been revelatory. Their all-male productions are no heritage gimmick, but reimagine the self-conscious complexities of early modern boy players in allusive, self-aware and challenging interpretations.

A near-identical Viola and Sebastian (Joseph Chance and Dan Wheeler) were central to the production’s deliberate playfulness. Two enormous closets dominated the stage, through the constantly swinging doors of which the cast made their entrances and exits. The obvious implications of the men emerging from the closet to join in the love plot may have been tongue-in-cheek, but more important was the sense that all of these identities – male, female, hermaphroditic, eunuch – were adopted. Recapturing something of the original boy actors, both Viola and Sebastian were young men dressed as young men, and each time either of the characters appeared the audience were confronted by the frisson of uncertainty as to who exactly was being presented. Both characters were thus present in both actors, their identities slipping for the audience as easily as for the inhabitants of Illyria. In one beautiful early moment, as Sebastian looked into a mirror in the closet, Viola momentarily appeared behind the class, holding out her hand in reflection of her brother’s posture.

The self-consciously fluid identities of these characters lent themselves easily to comedy. Gary Shelford’s Maria spent almost all of her time occupying the platea, winking at the audience and channelling Eddie Izzard in his camp drag. While Shelford was unusually detached in his performance, this allowed him to become the primary clown, including offering an extended clog routine at the start of the second half and a pitch-perfect delivery of the ‘If this were played upon a stage’ line that halted the production dead as the cast effectively shrugged to a hysterical audience. But the awareness of this performance served most importantly to throw into relief the subtler ambiguity of Viola/Cesario. As she and Christopher Heyward’s Orsino sat together listening to Liam O’Brien’s Feste sing, Orsino began weeping. Chance awkwardly attempted to put a hand on and then around Orsino’s shoulder, and the two grew closer together, Orsino unconsciously acknowledging the proximity of his servant. As the two embraced towards the scene’s end, Chance lifted his leg slightly, melting into the embrace before the two awkwardly detached.

Director Edward Hall’s strength here was managing the balance between the hysterical and the sad, and this was seen at all levels of the plot. John Dougall’s Sir Andrew was a case in point. Pathetic to the point of ludicrousness when sparring in boxing gloves and shorts, Dougall’s delicate performance allowed him to manipulate audience sympathy in slower moments. He allowed a long pause before he quietly stated ‘I was adored once’, and offered a flourish of flowers to Olivia that was dismissed coldly. Later, Vince Leigh as Toby tore the floppy wig from Andrew’s hair and cast it to the ground, laughing cruelly to the shock of the rest of the onstage spectators. Andrew rather humbly and quietly scooped up his hair and stumbled offstage slowly. Interestingly, the dynamic between Toby and Andrew was set up as military versus money, with Leigh’s tall, slender Toby a genuinely powerful force able to patronise and intimidate the much smaller Andrew.

The cruelty of Toby to both Andrew and Feste threatened at times to kill the humour, but was never allowed to render the tone too dark. In relation to Chris Myles’s Malvolio, the mockery became particularly horrendous as Malvolio was trussed up and injected by the clowns, before being tossed into darkness. Toby’s bitterness against himself as he sat atop the closet with Maria and Feste and looked at the bound figure below was deeply felt, but fitted with a world in which people seemed to be having fun, but betrayed a sadness as soon as the momentum stopped. At the end of the ‘cakes and ale’ scene, Toby was left in tears as he considered Maria’s love for him. This was a sad drunkenness, the end of the carnival of Twelfth Night, and as relentlessly as these characters wanted to have fun, there was a longing for a return to normality.

O’Brien’s Feste was another figure of ambiguity, an Irish Jew in hat and black coat wandering the stage with guitar and maudlin songs. This was an acerbic Feste, bitter in some of his reproofs and particularly critical of Sir Andrew, behind whose back he pulled disgusted faces. Holding out his hands constantly for more money, he appeared disgusted by everyone he encountered while simultaneously parasitic, although during scenes of revelry he relaxed into enjoyment. In a standout allusive sequence, his Sir Topaz was a spot-on Iain Paisley impression, the preacher thundering from atop the closets while Malvolio cried out below.

The allusiveness of this production was key to its self-awareness. From the obvious (a chandelier was raised to begin the show, in a clear reference to Phantom) to the deeply obscure (the conical box trees were taken from L’annee derniere a Marienbad), the mismatched palimpsest of Illyria foregrounded the production’s sense of its own performativity. When not in a scene, the ensemble donned half masks and processed, danced, played instruments and commented on the action. A flame-lit procession of a coffin for Olivia’s brother looked like nothing so much as Eyes Wide Shut, while the jazz-inflected sideshows turned scenes into celebrations.

The comic set pieces were typically outrageous. For Andrew and Viola’s fight, a bassist began thrashing out Eye of the Tiger and a makeshift boxing ring was pulled together out of rope, while Andrew took hold of a microphone descending from the ceiling and introduced the two competitors, sending them careering into one another while bouncing off the ropes. Meanwhile, Malvolio’s gulling scene offered a masterclass of nuanced blocking. Ben Allen’s Olivia posed as statue, holding the letter out for Malvolio and displaying her ‘hand’ as Malvolio recognised the writing. Other ensemble members whistled distractedly or posed as alternative statues, working with Feste, Andrew and Toby to help disguise their movements as they crouched behind tiny trees. The easy interaction between Myles’s gull and these half-present figures left this a joyously entertaining scene, and perfectly illustrated the willingness with which Malvolio threw himself into his own delusions.

Myles’s appearance in tight yellow fishnets and a generous leather thong reduced Allen’s Olivia to screaming in a richly funny scene that saw him stretching and mincing with unabashed confidence. Interestingly, Olivia and Orsino were two of the most overplayed characters, Allen crawling across the floor at Viola’s feet and barely able to contain her quivering lust as she shrieked to the audience. Orsino meanwhile, particularly in the final scene when he appeared in full military dress, quickly resorted to rage, channelling Othello as he held a sword to Viola’s neck. It was fascinating to see these two characters treated with relative indecorum and held up for ridicule; their sexual energy was, in many respects, the driving force of the plot, Viola and Sebastian cast into the relatively passive roles that saw the former passed between two masters and the latter literally stripped naked and exposed before the pleased Olivia. Rarely has her line ‘Most wonderful’ been delivered with such hopeful gusto.

In a production heavy on play, the grace notes were delightful – a Priest (Arthur Wilson) momentarily stealing the scene with his longwinded and smug explanation of Olivia and Sebastian’s marriage; Malvolio’s resumption of his poised arm positions before leaving with dignity; the feeble practice punches Andrew threw at Feste. Yet in the easiness with which roles were put on and off, we were repeatedly reminded of how harsh the impact could be of being forgotten or not taken seriously, most potently as Olivia shrieked in delight at Maria’s announcement of her engagement to Maria, completely forgetting the maligned figure of Malvolio standing before her and prompting his final bitter statements. O’Neil’s final song, ending with the masked figures letting off white party streamers into the audience, was a suitably ambiguous close – delivered in quiet and sober tones, and with the cast resuming a formality that suggested this party was firmly over, the ‘striving to please’ was undercut by the same feeling that had characterised earlier scenes, the sense that in trying to hard to have fun, one only masks the underlying sadness.

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