Barrie Rutter, down to earth actor and founder of Northern Broadsides, has done more than most to popularise pieces of theatre, very often works that others would prefer to keep in the elitist closet. Twelfth Night, the company's latest Shakespearean production, looks destined to spread Rutter's gospel a little further.
Twelfth Night is a play brimming with fun but, even so, the comedy can get left on the back burner in some productions. Not so here as Rutter and his band of Yorkshire players turn the Bard of Avon's work into something resembling high farce. Laughing at Shakespeare is often done with one hand stroking the chin as the head nods in a superior, knowing way. Here the laughs arrive courtesy of the genuine comedy on display and very often come from deep within the belly.
Spearheading this comic tour de force are cherub-faced John Gully's Andrew Aguecheek and Joshua Richards' perpetually wobbling Toby Belch; a pair whose actions and antics reminded me of many a drunken stroll home. Rutter's Malvolio is an obnoxious berk whose descent into cross gartered madness is a joy to watch. Helen Sheals' Olivia is a rather sour old bitch, even when lovestruck, while Lawrence Evans' Orsino comes across as something of a slimy creature. Then there is Paul Besterman's gleeful, harmonica-playing Feste. The audience was in full agreement as Orsino commented on the excellence of the fool's performance. All those involved utter Shakespeare's words with more than a hint of a Yorkshire accent which, rather than detracting, makes the work come alive; sheer poetry.
Despite all the laughter, however, the play's more poignant moments and serious themes are not lost. I'd go so far as to suggest that Rutter has got the contrast of light and dark just right. From the moment the play opens, with an ethereal acapella choir filling the air, you know that something special is about to happen. It seems that some audiences have greatness thrust upon them; thankfully, I was amongst those watching.
The set is as minimal as they come - basically there isn't one - but scenery didn't exist in Elizabethan theatre anyway, which is something we forget now and then. Costumes too are emblematic rather than periodic, and props are used sparingly. But who needs such nonsense when the text, the direction and the performances are all in such perfect synch?
At the Viaduct, an intimate yet amazing venue with a medieval feel, which adds immensely to the atmosphere, the play is staged in traverse. This will change as the play hits other venues with a diverse array of peformance spaces. Of course, none of this matters as one imagines that Northern Broadsides, with their maximum impact, minimum paraphernalia ethos, could walk into a Happy Shopper and put on a remarkable performance.
ARC, Stockton on Tees 8-13 Feb. New Vic, Newcastle under Lyme 15-20 Feb. Coliseum, Oldham 22-27 Feb. Everyman, Cheltenham 1-6 Mar. Palace Theatre, Westcliff On Sea (Essex) 8-13 Mar. Playhouse, Derby 16-27 Mar. Thoresby Park, Worksop 29-31 Mar. Auction Mart, Skipton 5-10 Apr. Building 21, Barnsley 14-17 Apr. Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough 19-24 Apr. Forum 28, Barrow in Furness 26 Apr-1 May