Twelfth Night is one of the most beloved of all Shakespearean comedies. With cross-dressing, separated twins, a shipwreck and lots of confusion, it has long been on the list of the most-performed plays in the repertoire. One of the courtyards of the Oxford Castle development plays host to this new production from Rachel Johnson for Tomahawk Theatre Company.
The company has certainly got the weather gods on their side for the first week of performances – outdoor productions are always a risk but the recent warm conditions should be very helpful to both cast and audiences. Though as the show finishes close to 10.30pm, you would be well-advised to take along a blanket – just in case!
Outdoor performances place extra demands on the cast. Projecting your voice in a less than perfect acoustic is never easy and it is clear that some of the actors are more adept at making the best of the conditions than others. Hopefully as the two week run continues, they will grow more used to the space and how to make their voices carry. That said, some of the blocking does not help – playing a conversation face to face may work in a small theatre, but in a vast courtyard, you need to cheat things out a little to allow more of the voice to reach the audience.
The production makes an asset of the vocal stylings of their Feste. James Studds recently took the lead in a production of The Producers and now he brings his musical theatre skills to bear with a series of early twentieth century standards. Whilst we gain some great singing, we do lose the songs for which the play is famous.
My main concern is with the characterisation of Malvolio. One of the most tragic figures in all of the comedies, it is a role that most actors would kill for. The reappearance of the character in his cross-gartered yellow stockings is one of the funniest moments of the play. The decision to have the actor wear nothing but the yellow stockings is, for me, a step too far. It does not fit with the character and goes for cheap sexual humour rather than the more carefully constructed nuance that Shakespeare must have clearly intended. Alexander Rogers works hard to make the most of this interpretation but it does not work for me.
The production does have a number of positives. Arabella Lawson has the right blend of hauteur and humour for her glamorous portrayal of Olivia. Samantha Knipe is a sparky and well-crafted Maria. Of the men, Alex Nicholls (Sir Toby) makes every word count with his robust characterisation and fruity personality.
Overall, this is a competent but unspectacular production of a great play. I am sure that as the performances continue, the cast will grow more used to the space and that they will learn to exploit it more effectively.