One of the first things that anyone notices about this theatre company’s productions of Romeo And Juliet and Twelfth Night is the versatility of its performers, who not only take on major roles in each of the two plays on offer in the same programme, but also sing, dance and play instruments to accompany the action to a hugely impressive standard.
This pairing of Shakespeare plays is one that is very much a favourite this year – at the Globe, at Greenwich and now here at Guildford. Do we need another such combination? Is there a sufficient audience out there?
Well, in a week when an examination board manages to confuse the Montagues and the Capulets in an essay question there certainly seems to be a continuing need to remind the educators as well as the educated of what’s what in the canon; and the more recherché pleasures of Twelfth Night struck a chord too. Perhaps this is owing to the topicality of the themes it addresses, whether gender confusion or the conflicting attractions of ‘cakes and ale’ and strict morality, but in this case it may simply be that the Watermill Theatre Company have in this particular setting and cast found a very plausible and winning way of bringing its charms and lessons to the surface in a captivating and arresting fashion.
One of the first things that anyone notices about this theatre company’s work is the versatility of its performers, who not only take on major roles in each of the two plays on offer in the same programme, but also sing, dance and play instruments to accompany the action to a hugely impressive standard. It is a bittersweet reflection on our cultural times that as the CVs of performers register an ever more diverse set of skills so job opportunities for these superbly talented artists continue at abstemious levels. So one hopes that casting directors will be following this production with attention as it moves around the country, and snap up some truly impressive talents of the present and future.
Seeing these two plays together suggests that the Romeo and Juliet is rather under-characterised in comparison with its pair. While there is a lot that is right – notably two strong leads and generally thoughtful and skilful delivery of the formal verse structures – director Paul Hart and his team seem to have rather less to say.
The setting is a rather grungy bar – Capulet’s – run by Juliet’s parents as a slightly shady outfit on the fringes of organised crime. Where the production does score is in retaining many of the later scenes after Romeo’s banishment that are often cut in a dash to the finishing line. It is good to see these scenes restored and the unsettling sexism and patriarchalism of the original presented ungilded and unedited. Less attractive is the continual musical underscore that is often unnecessary and sometimes obscures diction.
Among the performances that stand out are two leads themselves, who really do seem and feel like teenagers rather than, as so often, middle-aged actors remembering their youth. The Capulet parents were also well drawn individuals, with Emma Macdonald presenting Juliet’s mother as a self-centred celebrity vamp drawn to Peter Dukes’ suitably thuggish Tybalt, and Jamie Satterthwaite giving Capulet strong definition as a self-righteous bully. All credit also to Lauryn Redding for distinguishing sharply between her louche ingratiating Nurse and a Prince with real command and authority among the citizens of Verona.
Overall this is a perfectly decent introduction to the play that should be well-received by a school-age audience.
Twelfth Night is set in a Jazz Club and sets the scene with a variety of singers and instruments: ‘Georgia on my Mind’, ‘Mad World’, ‘Fever’ and ‘La Vie en Rose’ all set up layers of useful suggestion, and cast members dance on the stage with members of the audience. This is a very helpful device in rendering the play accessible and setting a tone of genial and wry humour which runs through the production as a whole.
This is not to say that darker and ugly moments do not receive due coverage. The treatment of Malvolio, a magnificently detailed performance by Peter Dukes, is as unsettling and uncomfortable as it should be. Dukes ends up not only cross-gartered but cross-dressed in an outfit that blends Freddie Mercury with Louise Brooks, and quite rightly he remains unreconciled with the rest of the cast.
There is a gallery of fine performances here, with each cast member reacting well as part of a larger ensemble and taking their solo moments to good effect. Victoria Blunt makes much more of Maria than is usual, and shows that in some ways she is the real engine of the plot. Aruhan Galieva completes a very full day by taking on Olivia after playing Juliet earlier, and is particularly good at highlighting the prissy and pedantic elements of the character.
The trio of Aguecheek, Belch and Feste (Mike Slader, Lauryn Redding, and Offue Okegbe) are a delight both for the invention of their collective comic business, and for finding the moments of sweet and sour melancholy that are never far below the shifting, comic surface of this endlessly fascinating play.
Orsino, Viola and Antonio (here Antonia) are tricky roles to bring off, but each actor identifies something new and striking to say with the role – Jamie Satterthwaite makes Orsino a bit of a ‘big girl’s blouse’, Rebecca Lane shows up Viola’s confusion as well as her feistiness and Emma Macdonald makes a small part seem more significant than the plot device her character really is.
A special mention should be made of the song settings used. The specific songs of this play are among the most famous in all literature. It is a hard ask to find something new to say with these over-familiar words. Often productions and directors duck the challenge by simply providing a thin underscore to declamation.
Here though, the Company as a whole, together with arranger Ned Rudkins-Stow, present a novel up-tempo version of ‘What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter’ and an inspired rendering of ‘Come away, Come away death’, that clearly owes a lot to Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black.’
There is real strength and depth in this production of Twelfth Night, by far the best of the several I have seen this year, and the only one that gets the balance right between raucous comedy, careless cruelty, and wan melancholy. It also contributes a fresh insight into how that delicate balance is to be achieved. Paul Hart’s interpretation shows that if you reveal the extent to which the play is truly drenched in music and musical references, you can use that extra set of emotional levers dexterously to shift the tone at will.
Here music truly is the food of love – there is no excess or surfeit at all – and the actors use it to provide a fourth dimension to their performances that is consistently impressive and ultimately moving too.