Twelfth Night is a classic Shakespearean comedy. The play follows Viola, Olivia and Duke Orsino, among others, as mistaken identities and disguises cause ruckus in Illyria.
The play tonight is performed by five actors from Merely Theatre, a gender-blind modern repertory theatre company. This means that, just like in the Elizabethan era, actors take on multiple roles and can play both male/female characters. It’s an interesting concept that grabs the audience’s attention from the beginning, but then makes Twelfth Night’s plot harder to follow as the story spins intricately toward the confusion-filled denouement.
This modern return to Shakespearean roots also includes quips and soliloquies directed at the audience. Whilst the original script already includes breaking the fourth wall, this is overdone, with audience on-stage participation and actors running back and forth in the stalls, creating a messy and at times chaotic atmosphere. This, mixed with the many modern references (to Harry Potter and Queen, among others), means the play loses some of its classical essence and falls prey to a panto-esque tone.
The company puts a strong emphasis on wanting to create “crystal clear productions” and aim to “make the text clear and accessible”. It misses the mark. Their modern approach means the original text, the true Shakespearean gem that should be cherished, is lost alongside added modern speech, what seems like improvisation, and various other attempts at making the audience laugh. The true wit of the play is lost.
One of the best things about the play is the cast. All five actors are strong, and their talent is unmissable. They work hard and bring a lot of energy to the stage for the entire duration of the play.
The maddening pace, that artistic director Scott Ellis prides himself on, is however another downfall of the play. By stripping away natural pauses in the text in an effort to keep the audience constantly engaged, the actors are sometimes difficult to understand. Their constant movement (they often dash on and off the stage) becomes less energetic and more exhausting to watch and try to keep up with.
If you’re looking for a panto-esque version of Shakespeare you will be in for a treat, but if you are looking for a modern, crisp and well-balanced Shakespearean comedy, you’re in for a disappointment.