In Shakespeare’s time, actors did not have the luxury of elaborate stage sets, lighting and sound effects to help them get their message across, as performers might do today. Instead, everything actors had to convey had to be done with their bodies and mouths. The Faction Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night is performed in exactly the same way: the stage is a clear black space, costumes are plain and hardly any props are used. Yet, what the actors manage to do with this empty space is bring a 400 year old play to life with great inventiveness, wit, energy and physicality.
Twelfth Night is a sparkling comedy of twins separated by shipwreck, disguise, unrequited love, romantic wooing, drunken antics, revenge, friendship and, finally, a happy ending. It is my favourite Shakespearean comedy and I was not in the slightest bit disappointed by this production.
A lot of thought, development and close-reading have clearly gone into the creation of each character and this shines through, giving the performances depth. Jonny McPherson’s Sir Aguecheek is hilarious as the dim witted but genial English gent. Shai Matheson’s Duke Orsino, who is driven mad by his unrequited love for Olivia is as “skittish” and “unstaid” as the text demands, with his sudden movements and unreasonable demands. The show is stolen, however, by Gareth Fordred’s Malvolio. The puritanical steward, hated by the rest of Olivia’s household, is chilling, slimy and precise to the point of militarism. When he is led to believe that his employer Olivia is in love with him, he becomes a grotesque but extremely funny courtier. Despite all this, he manages to elicit a degree of sympathy from the audience at the end of the play.
Mark Leipacher’s directorial interpretations make the play fresh and unexpected. One such example is presenting Duke Orsino and his courtiers in a sauna when he meets Cesario (the disguised Viola), with the simple use of towels – much to the poor “boy’s” embarrassment. Another interesting interpretation is the use of a large swathe of fabric to almost cover the stage for a night-time scene in Olivia’s house, portraying the “virtuous” half of the household sleeping while the “less virtuous” cavort and drink, drawing the audience into the fun.
This is a very physical production, with characters jumping around, dancing and pulling each other in various directions to demonstrate their intentions. In the small 80 seat theatre this was very affecting, with the atmosphere in the first row often crackling as you felt the actors tremble and shake. There are also moments of unexpected lyricism in the production, from Feste (Lachlan McCall’s) melodious songs to intimate exchanges between Orsino and the disguised Viola.
For those who know the play well, this will be a fresh and exciting perspective well worth seeing. For those who do not – I can think of very few introductions which are as immediate, inventive, funny or touching.
The New Diorama Theatre deserves to be applauded for its support of this intelligent emerging company.
Twelfth Night runs in rep at the New Diorama Theatre Wednesday until Saturday 18 February 2012. It is part of a three play season by the Faction Theatre Co, also including Mary Stuart and Miss Julie. Visit http://www.newdiorama.com/ for more information.