The Unicorn Ensemble completes its first year’s work with this delightful, imaginatively staged version of Twelfth Night, directed by Rosamunde Hutt, piercing to the heart of the play’s beauty, melancholy and sexual ambiguity.
One actor, John Cockerill, pays Viola and Sebastian, clearly indicating the switch to the audience, but embodying the crucial idea that the one apple has two halves and that Orsino and Olivia are sharing between them an identical split sexual personality, as if he were Joe Orton’s Mr Sloane.
The design by Lou Wilson places the action on a playground setting of a garden with a sunken pool, sandbags, potted plants, a great hanging (upside down) tree and a musical gantry where David Smith (doubling as Orsino and Aguecheek) can retire to drive the musical side of things, or tap out Aguecheek’s challenge (written in a “martial hand”) on an old typewriter.
The whole theatre, which has been reconfigured “in the round,” is used by an adept cast scurrying from scene to scene, character to character, without losing the narrative drift: the cuts are sensible, with clever conflations of Feste and Fabian (Gehane Strehler doubles the first with a cheekily flirtatious Maria) and, especially, Malvolio and Antonio, whom Amit Sharma can present as a pair of complementary social outsiders.
Samantha Adams plays Toby Belch as a Caribbean hedonist in a straw hat and multi-coloured shirt, while Julie Hewlett’s black and beautiful regal Olivia can touch as many resonances in the love poetry (“Though you are the devil, you are fair”) as this Cesario does by being an Elizabethan boy playing a girl playing a boy – and a girl’s twin male sibling, too!
Matthew Bailey’s musical direction, with its a capello choruses and lilting, plangent melodies, is first rate, and the staging is full of good ideas, such as Malvolio’s letter scene played out in a garden littered with characters freezing into romantic statuary every time he turns around.