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Manchester theatre reviews

Twelfth Night at HOME

Twelfth Night at Home

Reviewed by Stephen Bowler May 2016

 

‘If music be the food of love, play on.’ Is there a better-known opening than this? Surely not. We all know the line but want nothing more than to hear it again. How refreshing, then, when expectancy is seized-upon and turned to advantage, as in Filter Theatre's new production, which started as it meant to go on by punctuating, amplifying and enlivening Shakespeare's text - from start to end - with a riot of wildly eclectic musicality.

 

With brio and fine timing the stripped-down cast pack a big musical punch into a one-act performance that is as comic as it is innovative. Onstage an array of electronic instruments and gadgets constitute the set, and players are as likely to be in the stalls as the wings. Fidelity to the text is fairly loose, but delivery is excellent. Where the production really shines, though, is in the comic roustabout, verging on shameless pantomime.

 

One could cavil at the collapsing of theatrical magic, especially when it involves the conjoining of ‘audience’ and ‘participation’, but one must concede a clever elaboration of plot in the process. Having Malvolio sternly reprimand not only the drunken Sir Toby Belch and his gang – ‘Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?’ – but also a whole bunch of audience members who, almost despite themselves, have become embroiled in the Bacchanalian revel on stage, marks the man and the moment with wit and force. Of course, Malvolio will fall a long way indeed, and the harshness of his treatment is a difficult, almost sadistic, theme, but here the gulling is delightfully done.

 

Twelfth Night at HOMEWith only one performer playing the brother and sister Viola and Sebastian, a little imagination is required in the closing sequence when the pair are finally reunited. But it works, and like so much else the formula is pushing against convention and experimenting with new ways to anchor the text. Cute tricks, such as embedding the voice of the Captain in the Shipping Forecast on the radio in order to let us know where Viola has washed up after the ship-wreck, and having Valentine relay Olivia’s response to the Count’s entreaties by mobile phone, bring clarity and pace to the plot.

 

Bold, loud and irreverent as it is, the text is still there, and explosively comic in its realisation. Musical invention enlarges the comic dimension. But the gleeful energy that works so well in one direction is difficult to turn off when it comes to its dark inversion – the troubling fact that, as Harold Bloom put it, ‘Twelfth Night is nevertheless almost always on the edge of violence.’ Allied to this conundrum is an understated Feste, the fool; the only sane character amongst them and arguably the play’s moral axis.

 

But does this really matter? Is a substantive reality somehow lost along the way? No; not really. Not when there is so much else to enjoy in this most lyrical of renditions. Only a Puritan could object. ‘Whatever the critics may say, the audience always has to be right', wrote the late, great Mancunian author Anthony Burgess. And here the audience were right-in there, sometimes on the stage itself, quaffing the nonsense and concurring with Shakespeare on the fickle madness of love and identity. A hearty telling of the greatest of Shakespeare’s comedies had us all humming the final chorus on the way out.

 
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