Twelfth Night at Bristol Old Vic

Shakespeare. I’ve not seen much of the ‘Great Bard’ performed on the stage, but what I have seen seems to polarize my sensibilities. I’ve seen Macbeth twice; one performance was so bleak and dull that I nearly fell asleep, the other so seductive and engaging that I was left uplifted and stimulated! Because of this, the opportunity to see a Shakespeare play always feels a bit risky, as I am never sure what I am going to get. However, I trust in the Bristol Old Vic’s ability to put on interesting, lively and alluring theatre, so I decided to give it a whirl and went with high hopes. The play in question is Twelfth Night, and is a co-production between Bristol Old Vic and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, directed by Wils Wilson. This is a classic tale of love, unrequited love, deception, mistaken identity and ultimately, redemption. Duke Orsino of Illyria is in love with Olivia, but his advances are rejected. Cue the entrance of shipwrecked Viola, who, with the help of her captain, disguises herself as a man so she can enter the service of Orsino. Charged with wooing Olivia on Orsino’s behalf, things become complicated when Olivia falls for Viola, believing fully in her new persona as a serving man. Oh! And Viola has also fallen for Orsino who has no idea she is actually a woman. Plus, Olivia’s manservant Malvolio falls in love with Olivia after being tricked by Olivia’s uncle and maid Maria who make him believe Olivia is making manoeuvres of love towards him. And, did I mention that Viola has a twin brother who turns up in the mix to cause even more upset in matters of love?

Confused? Don’t worry, that is half the fun! This play feels very much like a classic British sitcom or farce with its quick pace and outlandish plot development. Also, have no fear that you might not understand all the language in the play. My companion who came with me on the night and myself are by no means Shakespeare aficionados but it didn’t take us long to engage with the language. Also, I have learnt that there is no need to fully understand every word of the sometimes archaic script, as if a company are skilful enough they will manage to make it accessible. Its fair to say that making a hugely enjoyable and accessible piece of theatre is something that the companies here have managed in spades. They have chosen to set the piece within the context of a wild, bohemian party where everyone ends up taking on parts from Twelfth Night as part of their partying and desire to not end the celebrations. With a 1960’s feel and some decidedly wild 1970’s costumes, the play is visually stimulating from the outset, and the live music that is played onstage and central to the action is a key part of its appeal.

When Shakespeare plays were performed at the time they were written, female parts were not great in number and were played by young men rather than women actors. In this version of the classic play, the cast played with themes of gender identity and sexuality, with women playing some of the male characters. This was further accentuated by the play being set in the 60’s, an era when some of the older generation began to complain that it was difficult for them to tell if younger people were male or female. There feels like there has been a shift in the last few years with greater acceptance of transgender individuals and younger people having more space to safely explore their sexuality. In that respect, the themes of this play felt incredibly current.

Sociology and gender politics aside though, the main thing I want to say about this performance of Twelfth Night is that it is simply delightful! Entertaining, absolutely hilarious and with the characters beautifully brought to life by the cast. Its difficult to pick stand out cast members as everyone was excellent, but… Oh Malvolio! I know that every single reviewer will most likely mention THOSE yellow stockings and I would love to be different, but that costume will remain burnt onto my retinas for some time to come! Played by Christopher Green, Malvolio is the character that doesn’t get his happy ending. Despite being the comedy character of the piece, he is played in such a way that I ached with empathy as his heart gets broken. But, as striking as his legs looked in the ‘crossed garters’, we can truly believe that once the hedonistic party is over, he will find the woman he deserves…

This show is wonderful, delicious, funny, hugely entertaining and an aural and visual feast. Who knew that Shakespeare could be all of those things?!

Review by Karen Blake

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