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“Strikingly modern” – Review: Twelfth Night at Waterperry Gardens

Set against the verdant backdrop of Waterperry Gardens, with the sun as the only lighting and birdsong accompanying the musicians, Somerville College Drama Society and Sunday Productions’ Twelfth Night is truly a sensory delight.

Twelfth Night is – like most Shakespeare – well-trodden ground, yet this production rendered the play’s themes of gender and identity strikingly modern. The choice to cast female actors as male characters brought out the complexity of gender within the play; even when the heteronormative pairings are established, one can’t help but notice the actors are female. From the first scene where Viola (Erin Malinowski) disguises herself as a boy, the audience is encouraged to enter a world where the boundaries between male and female and truth and lies blur and dissolve. 

The production wholeheartedly embraced the homoerotic undertones of Shakespearean comedy. A game of croquet, a picnic, and the Duke’s court all serve as settings for such romance; the play even had the audience questioning the nature of Sir Andrew and Sir Toby’s relationship as they collapsed upon the floor together. Yet the production didn’t merely use the homoerotic elements of the play as a source of laughter. It was at points genuinely romantic, largely due to the nuanced performances of the main love triangle (or square). Malinowski was compelling as Viola, acting as our guide through the tangled web of affection she leaves in her wake. Lucy Thompson captured the complexity of Olivia, shifting from cold command to blushing openness within seconds, and Leah O’Grady was truly believable as the swaggering Duke. Her descent from self-assuredness, to confusion, to full-on gay crisis was one of the most memorable elements of the play.

It was the sincerity of emotion that marked the production as a particularly excellent rendition of Twelfth Night. Attention was given to the relationship between Sebastian and Antonio, performed with touching earnestness by Tabitha Minson and Gwendy Davenport. There were memorable moments of intimacy throughout and swoon-worthy stolen looks of longing between Orsino and Viola as they were serenaded by a love song. Even Malvolia (the now-female Malvolio) was given a striking depth of character, becoming far less readily an object of disdain.

Such sincere scenes were especially striking by virtue of the otherwise comedic tone. Tom Farmer and Cosimo Asvisio were hilarious as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, providing a double act that reinvigorated the show at points where the energy was perhaps lacking. Celine Barclay as Maria offset the pair well and brought a satisfying level of cunning to her character. Occasionally scenes of the sub-plot felt unfocused or difficult to follow, but admittedly one never expects Shakespeare to be easy. Steph Garrett shone in what can often be a thankless role as the Fool, and her singing was beautiful. Where the comedy was most effective was perhaps in the actors’ use of physicality. All commanded the space well, and Farmer and Asvisio were deeply believable in their drunkenness. The stand-out comic scene from the play was Malvolia’s appearance above the stage in neon-yellow work-out gear, delivering the line ‘what-ho!’ while stepping into a deep lunge. Alice Hopkinson-Woolley’s Malvolia ably switched between cold servant and overzealous wooer.

The decision to remove the play from its historical context in its costumes, props and other visual elements was for the most part effective, yet admittedly it caused some confusion. The social or political standing of homosexuality was uncertain, and in a play that draws so much on gay love as forbidden love, it felt inconsistent switching between this theme and Malvolia’s plan to marry Olivia.

Performing the unique space of the Waterperry amphitheatre, which was hosting a student production for the first time, could also have posed problems, but the production turned these into strengths. Music –  a predominantly original score – punctuated the performance in the absence of a curtain or electric lighting and underscored certain elements of focus. The use of space was carefully considered; at times characters appeared above the stage, at times they descended through the audience, and most often they arrived onto the stage through an area the cast informed me was dubbed the ‘ditch’. The production certainly didn’t give the impression of a stage play that just so happened to be performed outside; the setting became an important part of its effectiveness.

Somerville College Drama Society and Sunday Productions’s Twelfth Night is showing again at University Parks – again in an outdoor setting – and I wholeheartedly recommend that you catch the performance. It’s a touching, funny, and ingenious show performed by a wonderful cast, and was certainly a highlight of my summer term.

Twelfth Night continues this weekend (14-15th May) at University Parks.

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