Twelfth Night – May 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 1st May 2007

I’ve enjoyed Propeller’s work before and I was hoping the Taming of the Shrew in the Complete Works was a one-off, but with this paired production I’m not so sure. Both productions demonstrated a lack of female perspective – these men can portray women’s outsides, but not their insides.

With both of these plays the ensemble seemed to have taken them too seriously, a definite problem with comedies. I’m not keen on the gross stuff, true – having Sir Toby actually throw up on stage was never likely to appeal to me. And while the dangling loo roll trick was great in The Nerd, it just looked tacky here. It’s as if they couldn’t really get inside the characters well enough, and so had to do more externally to get the ideas in the text across. Why not just try acting?

The set was naturally the same as the Taming one, though used differently. Here the wardrobes and chairs were all thrown about, liked the aftermath of some heavy-duty party – appropriate for Twelfth Night. It suggested dissipation, anarchy, and the neglect caused by grief, all themes in the play. The furniture was mostly covered over with dust covers, gradually removed, again suggesting disuse.

The costumes were mainly suits, with Olivia having some fetching sparkly evening dresses after her mourning phase. Maria was in drab black throughout, and Viola had only a short scene in her nightie before opting for the grey suit which her brother also wore. (These were the best matched pair of twins I’ve seen, by the way.) Feste stood out in this company, in more than one respect. He was in a suit, but it was pretty scruffy, with his tie dangling and a general air of carelessness. He carried a violin and looked like he’d just come from an all-night fiddler’s convention. He was the only character who didn’t wear a mask at any time – all the other actors wore them when they were present but not actually in the scene, like ghosts. This gave Feste the appearance of being in control of the proceedings, the Lord of Misrule. He was certainly more involved than some other Festes we’ve seen.

Speaking of the masks, the second scene – the shipwreck – had a lot of the cast on stage, throwing Viola and Sebastian around, then dropping her down near the front of the stage for the lines with the sea captain. With their suits and grey masks, the others looked like ghosts, and they faded away into the background (and wardrobes) as if melting into air. This was a wonderfully evocative staging, reminding me of all the dead people being mourned at the start of the play, and all the others lost in the shipwreck.

For the opening scene, Feste took a sheet off Orsino – he’d been sitting in a chair, completely covered, all the time the auditorium was filling up. I liked this Orsino – he looked pretty rough, he’d been drinking and he was obviously suffering. The music was good, too. At the post-show discussion, we learned that many of the cast just happened to be talented musicians as well, so there was more of an emphasis on music this time.

Olivia was more flighty than I’ve seen before, even camp at times. Sir Toby was a ruffian, very drunk and unpleasant, but I didn’t get his craftiness and villainy in rooking Sir Andrew so much this time. Sir Andrew wasn’t the usual lanky suspect, and he was one character whose normal comedy seemed to get lost. I’ve no objection to overturning conventions, but I do like them to be overturned to a purpose; not so here, unfortunately. Malvolio was excellent, all brooding pomposity and menace in the early stages, through to rampant lunacy and eventual anger. Bob Barrett was in the Nicholas Nicklebys last year, mainly playing affable chaps – he’s shown he can do a lot more in this show. The yellow stockings were indeed cross-gartered, as we saw when he whipped off his trousers. The leather codpiece lent a raunchy air to the whole outfit – no wonder Olivia fled.

Maria was a bit underplayed, I felt. Viola was OK – Tam Williams has had plenty of practice playing women, and has enough of the female in his looks to convey the part well, but even here I felt a lack of emotional depth. The line I love best in Twelfth Night – “What should I do in Illyria? ….” – left me unmoved, and I rarely got any real sense of grief. Even the comedy lines after Malvolio ‘returns’ the ring were largely lost. Everything seemed to go at too fast a pace for any of the characters to register what’s going on inside of them – not a lack I’ve noticed in the text itself!

Sebastian was stronger here, and that’s often the advantage of a true ensemble – these are not treated as such minor parts. The final revelations still had me sniffling, although the sense of everything piling up against Viola/Cesario wasn’t so clear here as in the Russian Twelfth Night (RSC Complete Works). Feste was definitely the strongest character in this production, and although he was generally laid back, he could join in the revenge against Malvolio quite happily.

The set piece with the letter had its good bits, and its no-so-good bits. Overall, I liked that Olivia was posed on a plinth and actually holding the letter. The idea of this lady having a statue of herself in her garden was appealing, and the line “this is her hand” took on an extra meaning. Also, when Malvolio took the letter, after having it practically thrust under his nose, the empty hand happened to have two fingers sticking up at him.

Sir Toby and the others (no Fabian in this version) were hiding behind cones of topiary of varying sizes, but none large enough to really conceal anybody. Other cast members were posing as statues of the three wise monkeys, but frequently changed position as well as interacting with the characters on stage; this led to one entertaining moment when the “speak no evil” statue had his hands clamped over Sir Toby’s mouth. All pretty entertaining, but it still felt overdone. Too much work for not enough return, and not enough attention to delivering the text.

All in all, I would give this production 2/10 for the first half, and 3/10 for the second. As the productions are shaped to a considerable extent by the actors in the company, it may be that this group just do things in a way I don’t appreciate. I’d certainly be willing to see a Propeller production again in the hope that changes to the ensemble may lead to an approach I find more pleasing.

Nearly forgot – how could I? – male nudity alert. Sebastian and Olivia had obviously got to know each other really well. Sebastian got out of bed with a sheet wrapped round him, and just as she entered with the priest he dropped the sheet to reveal all (sadly, not to us). Good fun, and a nice arse.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at


One comment on “Twelfth Night – May 2007

  1. Peter Serres says:

    This was the production in which Viola played “She pined in thought ..” seated beside Orsino but facing away from him. As the speech ended Orsino resisted the urge to put his arms round Cesario to console him, then actually did so for a split second, very gently; and finally withdrew again when Cesario registered his touch – all in less time than it takes to set this down.
    (Tam Williams & Jack Tarleton, I think. Not checked with the programme)

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