Twelfth Night

Reviewer's rating

Asked to sum up Twelfth Night in three words, director Wils Wilson said “CHARATER CHARACTER CHARACTER”. This does not go unnoticed when watching her take on the 17th-century comedy, co-produced by the Bristol Old Vic and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre. It is also rather fitting that this refreshingly modern, original version of the play is one of the first pieces of theatre gracing the equally invigorated Bristol Old Vic building after months of renovation. However, watching this performance makes you think that the director’s three words could easily be changed to ‘actor, actor and actor’.

As well as performing, the cast autonomously creates all musical aspects of the play, from the atmospheric background score to the humorous ballads of Feste and Curio. They not only carry the audience into new realms of emotion but also location. This makes the need for slow, manual changes of set unnecessary, a realisation that is cleverly noticed by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita.

Inspired by the boundary-defying 1960s, Wilson and Jabares-Pita’s collaboration creates a heavily visual play filled with psychedelic colours and sound. The designer specifically describes the scene as an “abandoned house…taken over by artists” and reflecting the infamous parties at Studio 54 and Andy Warhol’s Factory.

The idea of a band of drunken misfits performing Twelfth Night as an after-party charade is an interesting one. The concept of a ‘play-within-a-play’ is made explicit for only a short amount of time before the notion fades exclusively into the Bard’s comedy. The earlier concept is not completely forgotten, however, as the surplus characters in each scene lay about loitering or sleeping around the stage to keep the idea alive that this is simply a drunken rendition of the Shakespearean comedy, a daring take on a classic that ultimately pays off.

With the company being made up of musical directors, composers and even alumni of the Royal Academy of Music, the music unsurprisingly fits the tone of the play perfectly. As Wilson notes, the late 60s were “a time when…music was central to everything, as it is in the play” and this is made clear as it organically weaves in and out of the contemporary production. Created live on stage by the company really adds to this immersive, almost hypnotic, nature of the sound created. Not only does the play use commonplace instruments such as guitars and pianos but includes unusual organ pipes as well as string and percussion instruments to create a bohemian, mesmerising score.

Meilyr Jones, who plays Curio, stands out as one of the leading musical talents of the group. With his exceptional, delicate voice and a large involvement with the instrumental effort, it is of no surprise that Jones also acts as the composer for this production. Guy Hughes similarly uses his musical talent to stand out as his version of the lovable fool, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Opening the second half of the play with his self-composed ‘Sir Andrew’s Ballad’ illuminates Hughes’ fantastic comic timing and rapport with the audience. Dressed head to toe in white with platform boots, feathered shoulder pads and a cane in hand, it is unusually the smart subtleties of Hughes’ version of Sir Andrew that leaves the audience in absolute stitches.

A noticeable mention must go to Dylan Read who plays Feste, the Fool. Read maintains an unparalleled level of energy throughout; his movements are that of a mystical being, gliding around the stage with ease to meet and question the demands of his fellow characters. Joanne Thomson’s understated portrayal as Sebastian is similarly impressive. Often undercutting the farcical elements of the play with cathartic scenes of grief and elation, Thomson’s efforts result in some refreshing breaks from the manor house madness.

Other than a few actors coming on slightly too strong and thus leaving little room for growth or escalation in character, the performance is an eccentric ball of Shakespearean energy. A mystical, punky Twelfth Night that is seriously not to be missed.