Saturday 13 August 2016

EIF 2016 – Shake at the Lyceum, or, Too Ingenious for Its Own Good

I love Twelfth Night. I think this makes about the fourth version I've seen on stage. One day I hope to see a truly great version that is both funny and moving (as I believe the play to be). Unfortunately this latest in a long, and not terribly distinguished, line of foreign Shakespeares at the International Festival is not that version.

This French version by Dan Jemmett is set, according to the publicity, in a 1970s seaside resort. In practice the rather minimalist set – a row of beach huts and a picnic table, doesn't really suggest anywhere terribly concrete. The costumes and music do a little more but not much. The huts with their frequently slamming doors do suggest French farce is intended as a model, but unfortunately the pace of the play, and its tragicomic character are actually not well served by that idea. The more followed through ideas are to be found in the casting, particularly the doubling, and the direction of the performers. These are certainly often ingenious (as the programme note claims) but they don't add up to a satisfying, convincing total version of this play.

 The cast is reduced here to a total of five. Viola (Delphine Cogniard) doubles as Sebastian, a not unusual idea but one which makes the recognition scene problematic and contributes to its overall failure here. Sir Toby (Vincent Berger) doubles as Sir Andrew – well I say doubles but what actually happens is Sir Toby appears to be a failing ventriloquist and Sir Andrew is his dummy. Arguably the text gives some support for this – with Sir Toby perennially getting Sir Andrew to do what he wants – but the problems this doubling creates far outweigh any benefits. It makes the attempted duel between Viola and Sir Andrew utterly ridiculous (and not in a good way), there is never any sense that Sir Andrew has any character of his own (the best productions I've seen do clever things between him and Olivia) and Sebastian's assault on the two at the conclusion equally goes for nothing. Finally, Orsino (Antonio Gil Martinez) doubles as Malvolio. In terms of two distinctive performances, this is the most successful. It is certainly the only one where I forgot, until the final scene, that he was doubling. But, unfortunately, it too turns sadly ridiculous at that point when, in theory, both characters need to be present. Jemmett makes a tiresome business of this as Martinez slowly (and centre stage) switches wigs and posture from one to the other to deliver the different lines. Malvolio's departure should pack real emotional punch, as a result of this directorial decision, it packs almost none here.

There are further oddities. Among the cuts (though the afternoon still feels long at 2 hrs without interval) are the part of Maria and O Mistress Mine – the latter is particularly striking considering the considerable use of music elsewhere in the play. You could actually get away with cutting Maria by assigning the whole Malvolio letter to Sir Toby and just pressing on but, for reasons which escape me, Jemmett feels compelled to have Feste (Geoffrey Carey) explain to us all the bit that has been cut. It is another ineffective device. Then there's the decision to make Master Topaz into a bad seaside magician who performs a sword into the cabinet trick with Malvolio as occupant. I wondered if there might be some textual justification for this, but after looking at the scenes in question I cannot find it. However, the idea that they actually go to the extreme of killing Malvolio has potential. Sadly, Jemmett doesn't follow through on it, instead producing the mess of Malvolio's reappearance in the final scene already discussed.

One final production point bears noting. The text, allowing for cuts, often appears fairly faithfully rendered judging by the supertitles (though with some of Shakespeare's loveliest poetry rewritten). The substantial exception is Feste – also the only role performed in English – it was unclear to me what the reasons for these choices were. In Feste's case basically all the original Shakespeare is excised and he mostly tells a series of man went to the doctor jokes (when he isn't explaining bits of the plot for us just in case we're not following – never a good sign). I wondered if Jemmett thought that Shakespeare's fool's humour is usually unintelligible to modern audiences. Again, it isn't a bad idea, but I do personally feel that Feste has some very good pointed lines which a great performer in the role can bring across to modern audiences.

Fortunately, there are some saving aspects to this performance. The acting is solid (Martinez as Malvolio particularly stands out), and, in some cases, cast members do transcend language and production barriers to forge emotional connections – the marvellous Cesario/Orsino scene (“I am all the daughters of my father's house” etc) is blessedly one such case, as are some of Malvolio's monologues. Carey's Feste is an effective presence, and its a pity that his observations and occasional interventions are disrupted by the sillier moments (like doubling as Antonio).

But overall, and to my considerable regret, this version is neither moving enough nor funny enough to really do justice to this great play. A missable show.

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