Friday afternoon saw a Brasenose quad transformed into a tent of revelry for Brasenose Arts Week’s production of Twelfth Night. We were treated to the classic Shakespearean combination of mistaken identity, cross-dressing, unrequited love, and eventual marriage – not dissimilar to many an Oxford night out (though, admittedly, the marriages are more collegiate in nature and generally less legally binding.)
A tent adorned with hosiery set the scene, and this functioned throughout the play as both decoration and prop. A relaxed atmosphere was evoked by the casual seating arrangement, which consisted of a mixture of chairs and cushions. This arrangement allowed everyone to have a good view and to watch with ease as the narrative unfolded on stage. It also made the garden production feel more casual and intimate, bridging the gap between theatre and college lawn.
Complete with a marquee, dramatic make-up, and theatrical displays of drunkenness (as well as awkward interactions and some rather persistent flirting), the production was wonderfully appropriate for Oxford’s so-called “Ball Season”. It was also visually stunning, intermixing various performative elements – music (and, occasionally, dance) featured to form a truly classical performance.
The costumes hinted towards classic Renaissance attire – with a corset here and some very striking cross-gartering there – though, interestingly, these were combined with more contemporary dress, such as mesh shirts and boxer shorts. The simplicity of the costumes nicely complemented the pastel colours and glitter of the actors’ make-up. This attitude towards costume, with its blending of the traditional and contemporary, seemed almost redolent of Emma Rice’s work during her (brief) stint as Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe.
That the production may have drawn inspiration from Rice’s work was also evident in other elements of the performance as well, such as the use of the pop songs to punctuate the narrative. These were sung beautifully and endearingly by the Fool, and seemed to hearken back to the tradition of interspersing drama with madrigals. The music was often moving or employed for comic effect, such as when the Fool gave a (somewhat spiteful) rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ behind a dejected Malvolio, accused of madness. The singing, however, didn’t always accurately convey the nuances of the plot. Furthermore, whilst rather enjoyable, the play’s conclusion, with an all-singing, all-dancing a capella mash-up extravaganza, was a little bemusing. Nonetheless, this ending gave all actors the chance to demonstrate their varying levels of skill and offered a nice opportunity to see all the characters finally on stage simultaneously.
Ultimately, Brasenose’s production did full justice to Shakespeare’s comedy. With a fast-paced dialogue, interspersed with the occasional contemporary reference, it dispelled the myth perpetuated in GCSE English classes that “Shakespeare isn’t funny.” Such throwaway references were not lost on the audience and helped to successfully translate Shakespeare’s humour. Indeed, this is evident from the fact the performance was punctuated and invigorated by bouts of laughter from the audience. An explanation of a Shakespearean ‘fanny joke’ was particularly memorable, with a character stating that Malvolio’s comments on chirography, with reference to his mistress’s “C’s, U’s, and her T’s”, simply “sound like ‘cunt’.” The bluntness of this in the context of the play was incredibly refreshing. This, together with one of the strongest ensemble casts I’ve seen in Oxford student drama, made the overcast Friday afternoon fly by on gilded wings.